The advent of vaccines for COVID-19 brings some measure of relief for Minnesotans with disabilities. But it could be months before everyone who needs a vaccine gets one, so people must stay vigilant. The ongoing pandemic also dictates that people with disabilities, service providers and government must maintain flexibility in changing times.
Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Jodi Harpstead, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), outlined the current pandemic issue at a December 17 Minnesota Council on Disability forum. The council hosted a legislative update as well as breakout sessions, including one on the pandemic.
The department heads described the state response to the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccines as a process. While vaccines are a ray of hope, there is still going to be a need for everyone to continue to practice social distancing, mask up and take other precautionary measures for some time.
First responders, hospital and health care workers, and nursing home residents are among the first to get the vaccine. People who are considered at risk for disability and health reasons are also a priority. But it may be months before enough vaccinations are available for all. Some disability rights advocates contend that it could be all too easy for people with disabilities to be left out or pushed to the back of the line when it comes to vaccinations.
Session participants had a number of questions. One issue state officials said they have to sort out is how personal care attendants and direct care workers are classified. If they are indeed considered health care workers, they would move up in order to get vaccinated. Malcolm said clarification would be provided on that issue.
Malcolm and Harpstead discussed how their departments have listened carefully and been responsive. They have virtually met with people with disabilities and service providers throughout the pandemic.
State officials are very aware of concerns about health equity, said Malcolm. She said there’s a need to look at who’s most at risk. Some people have more vulnerabilities than others due to chronic conditions.
MDH has a disability team that has been closely tracking pandemic-related issues.
Minnesotans with disabilities have been “top of mind” for Harpstead during the pandemic as the state tries to navigate the balance of keeping people safe while also allowing them to be in the community. DHS has not only worked with MDH to provide information on how to handle the pandemic, it also has granted more than 100 waivers to its rules and regulations. Waivers provide flexibility for people with disabilities, care providers and their families. One example she cited is that of flexibility is that of allowing day service providers to offer outdoor activities, after activities could only be offered remotely.
DHS has also drawn on experience of key leaders including Doug Annett and Dan Pollock, who have worked with state emergency officials to advocate for people with disabilities and explain unique issues for the state’s at-risk population. DHS has had to monitor the pandemic, its surges and the state response in an array of facilities including group homes, day activity centers, residential facilities, congregate care facilities and other places. Not only have DHS officials had to be provide information about the disability and elder communities’ unique needs, but they have also had to advocate for needs such as personal protective equipment.
DHS also participated in the development of an executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz on people in at-risk populations, said Harpstead, making sure that they were also getting the attention they deserved in the community, and also making sure that they weren’t unnecessarily locked into group homes and not allowed to participate socially in the community.
For MDH information on the pandemic, go to the Department of Health’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) page.
For DHS Disability Services Division information on the pandemic, go to the DHS Disability Services COVID-19 FAQ.