The Arc Maryland is suing Baltimore City and five Maryland counties, charging they have discriminated against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) by denying opportunities for them to access COVID-19 vaccines.
The lawsuit filed last night in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Northern Division by The Arc Maryland – which is being represented by Disability Rights Maryland, The Arc of the United States, and the Brown & Barron Law Firm – asserts that the websites being used by the six named jurisdictions to convey information about coronavirus vaccines fail to include people with IDD as eligible for vaccines under Phase 1B of Maryland’s vaccine priority plan.
This is not only inconsistent with Maryland’s Executive Order and Vaccination Plan, which specifies people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have priority under Phase 1B, but also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The jurisdictions named in the suit are Baltimore City, and Carroll, Garrett, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, and Talbot counties.
“Simply put, this discrimination puts lives at stake,” says Ray Marshall, Board President of The Arc Maryland.
Ivis Burris has muscular dystrophy and requires support staff to come to her apartment to assist her with nursing needs. She lives in Baltimore City with her adult son who has Down syndrome. Under the state Vaccination Plan, they are both eligible for the vaccine under Phase 1B as individuals with IDD. But when Ms. Burris went to the Baltimore City COVID-19 website, she thought she wasn’t eligible to request the vaccine for herself and her son because the City excludes people with IDD from its list of those eligible for Phase 1B. Ms. Burris explains, “I want a fair chance like everybody else to live. My son deserves a fair chance to live. Considering our situation – I need a ventilator to breathe and my son is at higher risk because of his Down syndrome – it is really critical that we get the vaccine. Our disabilities put us at higher risk.”
“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have faced and overcome incredible obstacles over the past year,” Marshall notes. “It is frustrating to have our state recognize people with IDD to be the 1B priority group for the vaccine, only for people with IDD to be denied equitable access to the vaccine from the counties in which they live. We hope this action will result in immediate change for the benefit of all.”
Numerous studies indicate that people with IDD face significantly heightened COVID-19 risk. That risk may be increased for those who rely on caregivers or direct support professionals to provide assistance with daily activities, for which social distancing is often not possible. This is particularly true for those people supported by a provider organization, such as one of The Arc Maryland’s local affiliates.
According to a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Catalyst, COVID-19-related fatality rates among people with IDD nationally who have tested positive for COVID-19 are 2-3 times greater than mortality rates among the general population who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Maryland’s plan distributes vaccines to priority groups based on the relative risk of exposure or developing a serious illness. Since January 5, those included in Phase 1A (including health care workers and residents of nursing facilities) have been eligible to receive the vaccine. On January 18, Maryland entered Phase 1B of the plan, prioritizing Maryland residents who are:
- 75 years and older;
- in assisted living, independent living, developmental disabilities or behavioral health group homes, and other congregate living facilities;
- high-risk incarcerated individuals;
- continuity of government;
- education, including K-12 teachers, support staff, and childcare providers; and
- Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
On January 25th, Maryland entered Phase 1C of the plan, opening up eligibility to adults aged 65-74, essential workers in lab services, agriculture, manufacturing, postal service, etc. Those who fall under earlier priority groups, including those with IDD, continue to be eligible to receive the vaccine. Due to inaccurate information from these six jurisdictions, access to the COVID vaccine has been impeded for people with IDD.
According to recent projections, there are approximately 93,000 Marylanders, statewide, with IDD. A fraction of this number of people receive supports from a DDA provider in a congregate setting.
“We are grateful for the pharmacy partnership program in Maryland which has helped some people with IDD in DDA congregate settings access the COVID vaccine. Many of The Arc chapter affiliates have held clinics to support this critical vaccination effort in the state. Unfortunately, this group represents a small fraction of all people with IDD in the counties and in need: people who are not in a congregate living setting and/or are not aware they are prioritized for the vaccine in 1B due to the inaccurate or missing information from some county health departments,” explains Ande Kolp, Executive Director of The Arc Maryland.
“Throughout this pandemic, The Arc has fought to ensure that people with disabilities nationwide have equal access to treatment and are not subject to medical discrimination,” notes Peter Berns, CEO for The Arc of the United States. “As vaccines are distributed around the country, we will remain vigilant to ensure people with IDD are not discriminated against in this process.”
“We need these localities to take immediate corrective action to fix their information; to fix forms that exclude individuals with disabilities from claiming eligibility and seeking vaccine appointments; to tell health department staff and others that people with disabilities are eligible and to assist them with obtaining the vaccine. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over thirty years ago with a purpose of ending historic inequities in health care. We need immediate action to protect lives,” says Lauren Young, Litigation Director for Disability Rights Maryland.
“Ensuring that vulnerable populations have access to life-saving vaccines and that the State’s distribution plan prioritizing these populations is followed is in accordance with Brown & Barron’s core principles and values of promoting access to quality healthcare for all. We are proud to stand behind The Arc in supporting these individuals and communities at this crucial time,” says Brian S. Brown, Managing Member of Brown & Barron, LLC.