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6 Md. jurisdictions sued over vaccine eligibility for people with disabilities

The Arc Maryland has filed a lawsuit against six jurisdictions it claims barred people with disabilities from accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Arc Maryland has filed a lawsuit against six jurisdictions it claims barred people with disabilities from accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A nonprofit organization that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Maryland has filed a lawsuit against six jurisdictions it claims barred people with these disabilities from accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The lawsuit claims that these six jurisdictions — Carroll, Garrett, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Talbot counties, as well as the city of Baltimore — failed to list people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as members of priority group 1B on their websites and, in doing so, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Ande Kolp, the executive director of The Arc Maryland, the organization that filed the suit, also claims that people with these disabilities were turned away from vaccination sites and told over the phone by county officials that they did not qualify. She calls the lawsuit “a last-ditch effort to try to get some movement” in these jurisdictions.

According to state guidelines, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are part of priority group 1B, which Maryland entered on Jan. 18, about a month after the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the state. The vaccine rollout, which is now in phase 1C in most jurisdictions, has fully vaccinated over 500,000 Marylanders to date, despite many peoples’ struggles to find appointments in Maryland’s lottery-like online registration system. 

Kolp is not aware of any data outlining how many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have been vaccinated thus far.

The Arc Maryland is hoping to get these counties to not only change course and include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on their websites but also to reach out to their communities and make it clear that this population is, in fact, eligible. 

“We just want it fixed,” Kolp says. 

She also hopes the counties will offer reasonable accommodations to help any residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities who may not be able to use online forms to sign up for vaccine appointments.

Top health officials at four of the counties included in the suit claim that they had not been made aware of The Arc Maryland’s concerns prior to the lawsuit being filed, however, and said the complaints could have been easily solved without the suit.

Edwin Singer, health officer for Carroll County, said his county has done a respectable job vaccinating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; those who live in congregate care facilities were vaccinated through a pharmacy program, and those who do not have been able to contact the county to seek appointments.

“I’m a little disappointed because I feel this is something that could have been solved through a phone call rather than through a press release and a lawsuit,” Singer said.

Initial uncertainty regarding whether state guidance meant everyone with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or just those in congregate living facilities, qualified for the vaccine could have caused some confusion back in January, Singer said. But he doesn’t believe any workers in the Carroll County Health Department would have turned away a person with an intellectual or developmental disability seeking the vaccine at any point within the past month.

Health officers for Talbot, Somerset and Garrett Counties — Maria Maguire, Lori Brewster and Bob Stephens, respectively — also said they were not aware of the issue prior to the lawsuit being filed last night.

Maria Maguire, health officer for Talbot County, said that on top of the health department’s efforts to vaccinate individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, the department had also offered vaccinations to organizations that provide services to those individuals, including The Arc Maryland.

“To date, we have received no questions or concerns directly from any individual or entity, including The Arc, about vaccinating this population, which we have highly prioritized in Talbot County, so I am quite surprised and disappointed by this action by The Arc,” Maguire said in a statement.

Carroll, Garrett and Somerset counties said they have updated their website to include individuals with these disabilities in lists outlining who qualifies for the vaccine. Talbot County’s website does not contain a list of populations eligible in group 1B, but rather links to the state’s eligibility guidelines.

Carroll County, which uses interest forms for different populations such as essential workers and those who are over 75, has added an interest form for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

A spokeswoman for the city of Baltimore declined to comment on ongoing litigation. Officials from Queen Anne’s County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the Center for Disease Control, people with developmental disabilities for the most part are not inherently at greater risk for COVID-19, though Down syndrome does put one at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.

Research published in November by FAIR Health, a nonprofit that maintains data related to private health insurance, also indicates that developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities are among the highest risk factors for death from COVID-19.

 

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