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Maryland organization that supports people with disabilities sues five counties and Baltimore City, alleging vaccine discrimination

Several Maryland counties made changes to their websites Tuesday after an organization that advocates for and supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities filed a lawsuit against them, alleging they are providing members of the community unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The Arc Maryland filed the lawsuit in federal court against Baltimore City and Carroll, Garrett, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Talbot counties late Monday evening.

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The complaint alleges the six jurisdictions are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not explicitly including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on their online vaccine priority lists, even though they qualify for immunizations in the current distribution phase per Maryland executive order.

“Defendants’ conduct prevents people with [intellectual and developmental disabilities] from being able to schedule an appointment for vaccination,” according to a copy of the complaint. “The resulting harm is evident: People with [intellectual and developmental disabilities] are not aware that they are eligible for the vaccine; are unable to schedule appointments, register, pre-register, or complete interest forms for Defendants’ vaccines; and are delayed or denied access to critical health care services.”

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Ed Singer, Carroll County’s health officer and the president of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, said the county had not been denying people with disabilities access to vaccines. But the health department added a form to the website Tuesday morning specifically for people with disabilities to fill out for appointments in response to the complaint.

“This could’ve easily been resolved with a telephone call,” Singer said. “We’ve been having people personally register them over the phone. We know these people are 1B. This is no issue for us. I guess the only thing we need is a spot on the website.”

Gorman E. Getty III, who represents Garrett County, said in an email to The Arc and its attorneys that the county health department also has updated its website in response.

“The Health Department maintains a hotline and has not received any complaints relating to this issue,” Getty said. “In Garrett County, the population that you are seeking to protect have been well protected and their interests have been advanced. We further ask that you dismiss Garrett County government as a party to this litigation.”

In Talbot County, health officer Maria A. Maguire said the department had been prioritizing people with disabilities for appointments since early January. She said the county has been working with organizations, including The Arc, to vaccinate people associated with the community.

“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,” Maguire said.

And Lori Brewster, the health officer for Somerset and Wicomico counties, said her staff has reconfigured Somerset’s website, as well. She said the previous version of the website included a link that directed people to the state’s priority list.

A spokesperson from Baltimore declined to comment, but the health department’s website did include an explicit reference to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout as of Tuesday.

Spokespeople from Queen Anne’s County did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Ande Kolp, executive director of The Arc Maryland, said the failure to include accurate priority guidance language on the websites adds another burden to an already cumbersome preregistration process, which is inherently difficult to navigate for people in the disability community.

“We’re not asking for special clinics, just equitable access along with other people in [Phase] 1B,” Kolp said. “We were concerned that if we continued to wait and hope that things would change, we might not get it changed fast enough to save lives.”

Statewide, Marylanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities were prioritized to receive COVID-19 immunizations in the current phase of the state’s rollout as of Jan. 18. But with a national vaccine supply shortage and a decentralized, online booking system, many Marylanders — especially older adults, people without computers and those lacking digital skills — have struggled to secure appointments.

Not all people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are more vulnerable to developing severe illness as a result of the coronavirus, but those with underlying health problems such as weakened immune systems, heart conditions and lung disease could be at higher risk, according to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with disabilities also are more at risk for developing underlying health conditions than the general population, the CDC reports.

People with Down syndrome, in particular, are more at risk of contracting serious illness as a result of COVID-19, according to the CDC. It is one of a handful of conditions the agency identifies as a clear risk factor.

The state has asked at least 18 CVS pharmacies, in partnership with the federal government, to prioritize Marylanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities — along with older adults and educators — for vaccination appointments. The Maryland Department of Health also tasked local health departments with vaccinating at least one assisted living facility and at least one residential setting for Marylanders with disabilities each week.

But Kolp said many people with disabilities do not live in residential centers or receive services from the state. And some counties are listing “people in congregate living facilities” as eligible without specifying that it extends to the entire community of those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“It’s not getting at people who have disabilities and aren’t living in group homes, who are living very independently with caregivers,” Kolp said. “They’re the ones that are left out, and they go to the websites and they say, ‘Oh I’m not there, it’s not my turn.’”

There are at least 17,764 Marylanders with such disabilities who rely on state services, according to the Maryland Developmental Disability Administration. As many as 1,853, or 9%, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency’s figures. At least 92 of those patients have died as a result.

But the true number of Marylanders with disabilities is likely much higher, as the majority are not provided for by the formal service system. Kolp said it could be as many as 93,000 individuals, many of whom lack access to transportation and technology.

On Monday, Maryland acting health secretary Dennis R. Schrader told a panel of state senators that the state expanded eligibility to people over age 65 to correct for the racial disparities in life expectancy among seniors — a group generally dominated by white people. But the expansion made over 2 million state residents eligible for vaccinations, he said, creating competing priorities for providers.

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“Although we are focused definitely on 75-plus, we moved into 65-plus, and from an equity perspective, I think it’s an important thing — although it did add more people and it made it harder for us,” he continued. “But we felt it was worth it because of that.”

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