Aside from two doctor’s visits and one vet appointment, Moss Beach resident Cathe Boudreau hasn’t left her house since Feb. 29, 2020. She’s just 56 years old, but her three autoimmune disorders plus asthma put her at extreme risk of dying of COVID-19 if she contracts it.
Now that the state of California has announced it is scrapping vaccine eligibility tiers in favor of an age-based system, relatively young people with disabilities, like Boudreau, will have to continue to hunker down.
“I am petrified to leave the house because of the way my disorders are,” Boudreau said. “If I get one disease, I could be in the hospital with pneumonia very quickly.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week has spurred people with disabilities to speak out against the new system, which prioritizes teachers, emergency responders and agricultural workers before moving to vaccinate the remaining population by age, regardless of occupation or any medical conditions that increase COVID-19 mortality.
The switch is intended to improve the speed at which vaccines are distributed by simplifying the system. Local data shows the vast majority of deaths are among the elderly population, but those numbers don’t show just how deadly COVID-19 is to those with disabilities.
Few peer-reviewed studies breaking down COVID-19 mortality based on medical condition exist, but those that do show poor outcomes. A white paper from November 2020 published by FAIR Health sifted through insurance claims to find that people under 70 years old with lung cancer were nearly seven times more likely to die of COVID-19. Those with leukemia or lymphoma were nearly three times more likely to die if they contracted the virus, and those with intellectual disabilities nearly four times more likely to succumb. Those with developmental disorders across all ages were also around three times as likely to die from COVID-19.
Laura Minkel, an El Granada resident and nurse at University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, is worried about the change, too. Although she feels safe enough at work, she lives with her boyfriend who works with members of the Big Wave community that serves people with disabilities on the Coastside, including members of his own family.
“Autoimmune issues are big in disabilities, so that’s always a fear,” Mimkel said. “That would be my biggest fear, is living with him and knowing there's no way for him to isolate from his dad.”
Minkel said any list that doesn’t include people with disabilities or those living in group homes that aren’t necessarily licensed skilled nursing facilities is ignoring a key group of high-risk people. Just like with the organ transplant list, medical history is critical when it comes to making medical ethics decisions, Minkel said.
“The people with the worst outcomes, you want to get vaccinated first,” Mikel said. “Sometimes that's not about age, but personal health.”
People with disabilities are not the only ones left out of the new age-based system. Incarcerated people won’t have early access to the vaccine either, even though two of every five prisoners in California have tested positive for COVID-19. Also left out are critical infrastructure and manufacturing workers and those in the transportation sector, who were previously prioritized.
To Boudreau, the eligibility change didn’t come as a surprise. Throughout the pandemic, she has felt sidelined as restrictions have steadily relaxed while anti-mask movements and COVID-19 denialism gained steam. But Boudreau has seen the virus up close. She knows several people who have died of COVID-19, including her housemate’s mom just last Friday. That’s why she and her neighbors, many who are elderly, double mask just to take out the trash.
“My biggest joy is watching people surf at Mavericks, and I haven't done that,” Boudreau said. “It's been the best year of all, and I haven't seen it.”
A stand-up comedian whose work was also sidelined last year, all Boudreau can do is wait.
“I'm brokenhearted,” Boudreau said. “The worst part of it is you don't feel worthy enough to be taken care of.”