Letter to the Governor and DHEC regarding vaccine distribution

February 22, 2021

February 19, 2021

The Honorable Henry McMaster
Governor of South Carolina
c/o Trey Walker, Chief of Staff
South Carolina State House
1100 Gervais Street
Columbia, SC 29201

Dr. Edward Simmer, Director
SC Dept. of Health and Environmental Control
c/o Teresa Higgins, Executive Assistant
2600 Bull Street
Columbia, SC 29201

Dear Governor McMaster and Director Simmer:

I write to you today in my capacity as the Executive Director of Disability Rights South Carolina (DRSC; formerly Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.) As you are aware, our organization is charged with the duty of protecting and advancing the legal, civil, and human rights of people with disabilities in South Carolina. We are so charged and empowered by the General Assembly pursuant to S.C. Code § 43-33-310, et seq.

We appreciate the efforts and challenges you face in distributing vaccines to South Carolina residents, and we appreciate the opportunity to share our recommendations. The following organizations are joining in signing this letter: Able South Carolina, AccessAbility, and Walton Options for Independent Living. These organizations are federally recognized Centers for Independent Living (CILs), which are non-residential, community-based, not-for-profit organizations that provide individual and systems advocacy to create options and choices for South Carolinians with disabilities to live independent lives. Centers for Independent Living are required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to be directed and staffed by a majority of professionals with disabilities. This is a point of organizational pride where the majority of their Board of Directors and staff have disabilities so they have a close understanding of the barriers impacting people with disabilities.

We are writing this letter to address the concerns we have for specific individuals with disabilities. Although many people with disabilities are healthy, there are people with disabilities that are vulnerable due to their health status. These people include individuals with significant physical disabilities, high-risk medical conditions, and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

We addressed these concerns in a previous letter that Randall Dong, our Legal Director, sent to you on December 10, 2020. In his letter, he addressed our concerns for people with disabilities who are most vulnerable to becoming sick with COVID-19, and defined who these individuals include. When we wrote this letter, it was our understanding that only healthcare workers, long-term care facilities workers and residents would be the first to receive vaccines in the initial rollout, and be part of phase 1A. However, the list for phase 1A continues to change and grow. We know that educators may eventually be included in 1A. Although we have no opinion about who is currently included in 1A, and who might be added, we do feel strongly that the longer the most vulnerable in the disability community have to wait to be vaccinated, the greater risk they face in getting COVID-19, and the serious complications it brings.

Please note that DRSC did receive a response from Teresa Higgins for DHEC Acting Director Marshall Taylor on December 12, 2020. In this letter, DHEC did state that they recognized that some people with disabilities are at high risk: Thank you for bringing up an important consideration. Although our interim COVID-19 vaccine administration plan does not specifically mention persons with disability (physical, genetic, developmental, or intellectual), we do recognize that these individuals are an increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease. Disability will be included as a criterion for early vaccination in our phased vaccine administration plans.

DHEC agrees with our concerns of some individuals being at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease; therefore, we are asking for the following individuals to be vaccinated now:

If as a result of a developmental or other severe high-risk disability one or more of the following applies:

  • The individual is likely to develop severe life-threatening illness or death from COVID-19 infection.
  • Acquiring COVID-19 will limit the individual’s ability to receive ongoing care or services vital to their well-being and survival.
  • Providing adequate and timely COVID care will be particularly challenging as a result of the individual’s disability.

In addition to urging that certain groups of people with disabilities be made immediately eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations because their specific disabilities make them particularly susceptible to infection and much more likely to suffer severe disease and death than people not having those disabilities, we would also advocate that DHEC immediately implement improvements in accessibility to information about the COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as to the vaccines themselves. Public meetings should accommodate people with disabilities through the use of captioning, sign language, and/or other accommodations. Websites informing the public of the vaccination process, priorities, and sites should be made more accessible and simpler to navigate. DHEC should formulate, implement, and publicize a clear plan to provide vaccinations to people with disabilities who are at high risk for severe disease or death from COVID-19, including those who are confined in their homes because of their condition. It is also imperative that sufficient numbers of staff members be trained to deal with the challenges associated with delivering vaccinations to people with disabilities.

We are deeply appreciative of your commitment to prepare our state for timely and orderly distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. Thank you for taking the time to consider our request. Please let me know if I can provide you with any more information or otherwise assist you.

Respectfully yours,

Beth Franco, Executive Director
Disability Rights South Carolina

Julia Martinelli, Executive Director
AccessAbility South Carolina

Kimberly Tissot, Executive Director
Able South Carolina, Inc.

Cindy Milstead-Anzek, Director
Walton Options for Independent Living

CC. Dr. Linda Bell, State Epidemiologist

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