Lack of COVID-19 vaccine prioritization for adults with cognitive disabilities could have serious consequences

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Doctors say the lack of COVID-19 vaccine prioritization for adults with mental and cognitive disabilities could have serious consequences, because the group is at higher risk of infection.

Experts say adults with mental, intellectual and developmental disabilities are not only susceptible to getting COVID-19, but they’re also at higher risk for severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

“This is a group I think that can be marginalized,” said Beth Lonergan, director of behavioral services at UW Health.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) issued vaccine prioritization guidelines in December 2020, but doctors say almost all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were not included in Phase 1 categories.

“Persons with mental illness are kind of a secondary consideration and these are among the most vulnerable population,” said Stephen Saunders, PhD, chairperson at the Marquette University Psychology Department.

A finding in the Lancet Medical Journal show adults 18 to 74 with cognitive disabilities have nearly twice the COVID-19 death rates, and evidence suggests it’s a struggle to follow COVID-19 precautions.  

“Some adults may have impaired capacity to understand the importance of social or physical distancing and wearing a mask,” said Saunders.

“They may have caretakers, that’s of course added risks as well,” adds Lonergan.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote the ACIP in October urging people with mental and cognitive disabilities get into Phase 1, but recommendations still do not cover a majority of the population. Saunders says it’s a group that’s not often prioritized.

“That’s always been the case and seemingly will continue to be the case,” he says.

"Not surprising, they’re a population that probably hasn’t been, you know, targeted,” Lonergan said.

Experts say without vaccination prioritization of people with mental and cognitive disabilities, the consequences for this population group could be substantial.

We’ll probably continue to see the same as now, which is greater risk of both infection and you know, bad outcomes,” Saunders said. “The reasons for prioritizing are pretty strong, both for community health and for these individuals themselves.”

“My hope is that we’ll get the vaccination rate up and running more than we have in the state so far,” adds Lonergan.

Saunders says along with social and living barriers that may increase the risk of catching COVID-19, people with mental and cognitive disabilities may also not have the support they need to recognize they are infected or have been exposed to the virus.





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