Minnesotans with disabilities wonder when they'll get COVID-19 vaccine

Studies indicate people with disabilities are more at risk of death from coronavirus infection

A man stands on a sidewalk between two walls.
Brad Donahue outside of his Hugo, Minn., home on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Brad Donahue lives in a group home for children and adults with developmental disabilities north of the Twin Cities. The coronavirus has kept the 35-year-old mostly confined there.

“It's kind of weird,” Donahue said. He works at a nearby company doing light assembly work, but hasn’t been able to go in since COVID-19 cases spiked in November. “(I’m) missing my friends at work. I wish I can go to work and see friends.”

Being able to do those things freely depends on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s not clear when that will happen.

Donahue’s parents, who are in their mid-60s, have spent the pandemic mostly apart from their son.

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“It's harder in that as an older couple, you know, and we are really very much an emotional support for Brad and he likes to be in touch with us often and see us as often as he can,” Char Donahue said. 

Minnesotans with disabilities are still waiting for answers on specifically when they’ll get the COVID-19 vaccine. As a group, people with disabilities often disproportionately suffer from the effects of the pandemic.

Under state guidance, home health settings and group homes should receive the vaccine following frontline health workers, nursing homes, assisted living and some other health care settings.

“We know that folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. I would call it an assault on the disability community,” said Kody Olson, a policy advisor for the Minnesota Council on Disability, who is working with the State Emergency Operations Center during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has disrupted the way that people have lived in the communities. It's disrupted how they receive their homecare services, or independent living services,” Olson said.

According to an analysis from FAIR Health and Johns Hopkins University, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 as others who get infected.

Olson said the state’s vaccination plan includes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in each of its initial stages — 1a through 1c. Those ages 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions and essential workers will be covered in the “c” stage.

“My understanding is in general, anyone with an intellectual and developmental disability who falls under that category are included in phase 1c,” Olson said.

Barnett Rosenfield, the supervising attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, has some concerns about how the state plans to serve those who are not in care facilities or group homes.

For years, people with disabilities have been encouraged to live in as independent a setting as they’d like. Rosenfield said that’s good, but it can mean people who really should get the vaccine early on will not.

“There are a lot of people who are concerned that their loved ones are very vulnerable. And they're going to be lower priority just because they get services in their own home,” he said.

And he said not just the people getting those services, but home health aides should get the vaccine sooner.

Rosenfield said there are also some issues around consent before vaccination to consider.

“If I have a cognitive impairment, is there someone who can walk me through this and help me better understand,” Rosenfield said. “[So] I understand what the vaccine is, what the impact of it might be, for me, the pros and the cons so I can make an informed choice?”

MPR News photojournalist Evan Frost contributed reporting to this story.