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Disabled And Chronically Ill Utahns Say COVID-19 Vaccination Gives Them A Chance To Reclaim Normal Life

Disabled Rights Action Committee Vaccine Clinic.jpeg
Courtesy Disabled Rights Action Committee
The Disabled Rights Action Committee and two other organizations are hosting vaccine clinics for people with disabilities.

Jim Rounds has only left his house about once a month since the pandemic started. He has multiple sclerosis and takes medication that suppresses his immune system.

“It’s deeply traumatic to live in terror just for a long, long period of time,” Rounds said. “That is roughly the situation I feel I’ve been in. Just being frightened of any kind of exposure to disease.”

At the end of February, Utah made COVID-19 vaccines available to people ages 16 and older with underlying medical conditions. Rounds got his first dose at the beginning of March and said he’s still trying to process what that means for him.

“It hasn’t really hit me that there’s a point where I can basically go back to having a normal life, because I didn’t think that was something I was going to get,” he said.

Psarah Johnson is the board chair for the Disabled Rights Action Committee and has a compromised immune system. She said people with disabilities have been desperate for the vaccine.

Deb, Joel, and Psarah.jpg
Courtesy Disabled Rights Action Committee
Joel Ontiveros, Psarah Johnson and Deb Ontiveros pose with their vaccinating cards at a recent vaccine clinic. They received their first dose along with more than 100 other people.

“Frequently, people tie disability and old age together, which is an absolute mistake,” Johnson said. “But there are a lot of young people with very severe disabilities that are really threatened by this disease. We are not expendable.”

The Disabled Rights Action Committee partnered with the Utah Parent Center and Utah Developmental Disabilities Council to host vaccine clinics specifically for disabled Utahns. At the first one, around 150 people got the shot. Another one is coming up on March 16 where Johnson expects they’ll likely serve another 150.

As she’s been signing people up for the clinic, she said there’s a sense of relief in the disability community.

“[There’s a] weight being lifted,” she said. “We’ve been living in hell for a year now.”

Once Rounds is fully vaccinated, he said he has a couple things to check off his post-pandemic to-do list.

“Hugging one of my friends. That’s all I want,” he said. “Well that, and getting a tattoo. Those are really the only two things I’ve thought about so far.”

But some people are still waiting for their turn. Johnson is concerned that as of March 10, people with asthma still aren’t eligible. Neither are full-time caregivers who don’t meet certain qualifications.

“We have health care workers covered, and that’s great for those that are licensed health care providers,” she said. “But a lot of people in the disability community rely on family, rely on friends to really help them. And when you can’t vaccinate those care providers, that’s a problem as well.”

A spokesperson for the Utah governor’s office said all adults should be eligible for the vaccine by April 1.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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