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Americans with disabilities, high-risk conditions struggle with vaccine eligibility

Even as the U.S. sets records for daily COVID-19 vaccinations, disparities in availability persist. We cover the stories of some medically vulnerable people, most of whom are still waiting for their shot. And for more on the reasons behind the wait, William Brangham speaks to Jen Kates, the Senior Vice President and Director of Global Health and HIV Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as the U.S. sets records for daily COVID-19 vaccinations, disparities in who is getting those vaccines persist.

    In a moment, William Brangham will talk with a researcher about those gaps.

    But, first, here are the stories of some medically vulnerable people, most of whom are still waiting for their shot.

  • Jessica Hernandez:

    My name is Jessica Hernandez. I am from Southern California. I am a diabetic. I have high blood pressure, and I have an endocrine disorder called Cushing's disease.

  • Katie Powers:

    My name's Katie Powers. I live in Maine. And I have a rare autoimmune disorder that's been labeled anti ganglioside antibody disorder.

  • Samuel Freeman:

    My name is Samuel Freeman. I live in New York state, and I have cerebral palsy, epilepsy, asthma, scoliosis, and I have poor vision.

  • Justin Clemente:

    Aloha. My name is Justin Kamai (ph) Clemente. I reside in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.

    I am 41, and I have more than one condition. I'm a cancer survivor, and I'm HIV-positive.

  • Kathleen Newell:

    My name is Kathleen Newell. I'm from California. And I have stage four breast cancer.

    I think California threw us under the bus. The CDC had wrote a letter saying that people on chemotherapy and other types of really serious diseases should have been in that group at the priority list. And I just now got my vaccine.

  • Jessica Hernandez:

    I, unfortunately, got COVID last year, at the beginning of the pandemic. But, apparently I don't qualify, even despite my underlying conditions.

  • Katie Powers:

    Maine has not done anything to make this process easier for any high-risk person to get vaccinated.

  • Samuel Freeman:

    I'm still searching for a vaccine. When the vaccine rolled out, they immediately said, oh, only senior citizens above 65 qualify. How do you leave out people with disabilities from the get-go?

  • Justin Clemente:

    Trying to get the vaccine, I'd like to say happily that I have gotten it, but I'm not.

    In regards to having HIV and each state treating it differently, I think it kind of got to me a bit that there isn't a national standard for it. So, now we are stuck, if you have HIV, just waiting. Even though you could be on the front end of it and be fine, or the back end of it and have AIDS, you are stuck with everyone else in the general population and waiting to get the vaccine, because you're not that important enough.

  • Kathleen Newell:

    My days are numbered.

    I'm hoping my medication for the stage four cancer will work, and that I will live another 10 to 20 years. But the odds are against that. So, every day counts for me. So, I lost that year, and I see it improving as soon as my vaccine kicks in, so that I don't have to be so isolated.

  • Jessica Hernandez:

    I just hope and I do believe that everybody will get vaccinated and then life will get back to normal. And I hope mine does.

  • Katie Powers:

    No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to say the word disabled. No one wants to say the words high risk. They want to skirt around the issue, like we don't exist.

  • Samuel Freeman:

    This whole scenario shouldn't be happening right now, period.

  • Justin Clemente:

    I'm hoping and praying like it does go in the right direction. And all you can do is still practice your social distancing and be smart about what you're doing and how you're doing it, and just wait my turn.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on why some of these people are still waiting for their vaccines, I'm joined by Jen Kates. She's the senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    Jen Kates, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    We have talked a lot about the inequities in vaccine distribution, but hearing these people's stories, it is hard not to feel that sense of frustration. These are people who seem to be clearly medically vulnerable. What is your sense, broadly speaking, as to why these people are having a hard time getting their shots?

  • Jen Kates:

    Yes, it is hard to hear. These are individuals who all have high-risk medical conditions. If they were to get infected with COVID-19, they are at great risk for hospitalization and even death.

    So, hearing you is — it just shows you that we have a lot more work to do.

    What we have found in our research is that, for the most part, states did not prioritize this population initially, and that was not the recommendation to do, so it has been a lot of waiting, a waiting game for many people with high-risk medical conditions.

    And that's what we're seeing right now, is that states have mostly opened up eligibility to them now, almost all, but a month ago, that was not the case. A month ago, half of the states had done so.

    So, it was very hard for people who are quite vulnerable to get appointments.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that people don't like it when the federal government or their state government tells them what to do, but the CDC, as your research indicates, did put out this list of who should be prioritized.

    Was it your sense that states and counties followed that guidance, for the most part, or not?

  • Jen Kates:

    Yes, that's a good question.

    So, in addition to the issue of states not prioritizing this group initially, they also defined the high-risk medical condition list very differently. The CDC had a set of conditions, and some states abided by it, and others didn't. So, in one state, you might be somebody who has a serious medical condition, but not eligible, whereas, just next door, you might be eligible.

    So, that has created another layer of challenge for a very vulnerable group of people.

  • William Brangham:

    One researcher I talked to said that some of this, he thinks, might have to do with the relative invisibility of people with these different medical conditions in our society.

    Do you think there's any truth to that?

  • Jen Kates:

    I think there's some truth to that.

    I think that there's a lot of complicated factors as to why states were prioritizing this group after others and why they defined certain conditions as being included and others not. But, yes, this is a — if we look around, it's not really a group of people that always come forward and clamor for inclusion, especially given the last year, when everyone is afraid and trying to be as careful as they can.

    So, I think there's a lot of factors that have gone into this. But the upshot is, as we have heard, people who are feeling vulnerable, wanting to be safe, and are recommended for vaccination have not been eligible until recently.

    One bit of good news, by the end of April, every state, virtually every state will have opened up eligibility to all people 16 and older. So, these issues will go away. There will be other issues, but these issues should go away.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that your sense, that, as soon as we have enough vaccine supply and those doors open, that those people will — that this problem will basically go away?

  • Jen Kates:

    I think, at that point, the eligibility confusion, the eligibility waiting game will go away. Then we will still be into the issue of, OK, the supply, has it gotten to the states, and the states have the capacity to reach people, or is the registration system too complicated?

    There's still going to be issues in some populations, including those with high-risk medical conditions, that may be homebound or unable to easily leave their home, are still going to need extra help and effort. So all of these issues won't go away. The eligibility challenge is the one thing that will ease up.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jen Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation, always good to see you. Thank you for being here.

  • Jen Kates:

    Thank you. Good to be here.

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