A remark by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about who is most likely to die from the coronavirus has sparked an outpouring of grief and rage from people with disabilities or chronic illnesses that has not abated nearly a week later.
During a TV appearance last Friday, director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky discussed the results of a new study of 1.2 million vaccinated people, finding that only 0.003% of them died from the Covid-19.
Given the “encouraging headlines” about “this new study showing how well vaccines work to prevent serious disease,” ABC News’ Cecilia Vega asked Dr. Walensky, “is it time to start rethinking how we live with this virus, that it is potentially here to stay?”
Dr. Walensky’s response, which his agency said was poorly edited and taken out of context, angered many Americans with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Advocacy groups have requested a meeting with Dr. Walensky, which is scheduled for Friday, and released an open letter Thursday.
“The overwhelming number of deaths, more than 75%, occurred in people who had four or more comorbidities, so, really, these are people who were not well to begin with,” Dr. Walensky said in the interview. “And yes, really encouraging news within the framework of Omicron. That means not just getting your main streak, but getting your booster streak, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.
For many Americans with comorbidities — a term that encompasses many types of conditions, from immunosuppression to cystic fibrosis to obesity — those comments were something of a drop in the bucket, draining their patience in the face of a federal response to the pandemic they view as a cavalier disregard for their lives. When they started posting on social media using the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy, their complaints were about more than just one comment.
The CDC said what Dr Walensky called “encouraging news” was the study’s finding that vaccines protect most people from serious illness and death, not the fact that those who died were usually people with disabilities. This week, ABC replaced its original online-edited video with a longer version in which it prefaces its comments with a brief summary of the research.
Disability advocates said the context didn’t make his remarks any less hurtful – that they still presented disability deaths as a footnote. And they said the agency’s defense also lacked context: its response to the pandemic over the past two years.
“Even including the part that was deleted, it wouldn’t make any difference,” said Imani Barbarin, who started the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy. She added: “Even when someone speaks badly or doesn’t get their point across properly, it still hurts us.”
As for the study Dr Walensky was talking about, Ms Barbarin said it might be encouraging for generally healthy people, but “for us it’s terrifying”.
Advocates said the federal government has failed Americans with disabilities throughout the pandemic by, among other things, failing to make home testing and high-quality masks widely available, or providing clear public health advice. , or to increase global vaccinations fast enough to prevent the emergence of new variants like Omicron.
“Director Walensky’s comments aren’t some kind of off-the-cuff, off-the-cuff response,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the Americans with Disabilities Association. “One of the reasons his comments are so concerning is that they reveal how people with disabilities have been deprioritized and seen as acceptable losses.”
A CDC spokesperson said, “Dr. Walensky did not intend the comments during a recent television appearance to be hurtful to people with disabilities. She is deeply concerned and cares about the health and well-being of people with disabilities and those with health conditions who have been affected by Covid-19.