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What does it take for people with disability to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Introduction by Croakey: The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to the workforce that cares for aged care residents and people with disability is again causing controversy, particularly as Victoria deals with new coronavirus cases in aged care and extended metropolitan lockdowns.

The Victoria Government has fast-tracked vaccinations of workers and residents in the aged care and disability sectors but families fear the vaccination blitz will not be enough for these vulnerable groups.

Meanwhile, families are finding it bewildering trying to navigate the vaccination process for people most at risk who should have been vaccinated months ago. In the article below, originally published on Hireup, Dr Ariella Meltzer relates the frustration and runaround experienced by her family when they tried to get a vaccination for her sister who has Cerebral Palsy.


Ariella Meltzer writes:

When our family heard that people with disability living in supported accommodation would be in the first group of Australia’s vaccine rollout (1a) we were very relieved: my sister would get her vaccine in the first three weeks of the rollout starting late February.

But then we waited . . .  and waited some more. 

My sister has Cerebral Palsy and a complicated medical history. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my family and I have been very conscious of the increased risks my sister would face if she contracted the virus. She also lives in supported accommodation which, according to the evidence, is a particularly high-risk environment for spreading COVID-19.

The Federal Government was managing the vaccine program in aged care and supported accommodation. But there were delays. We watched as the vaccine rolled out to 1b before finishing 1a. Then to 2a without finishing 1a. Our patience started to wane – why were later priority groups getting the vaccine before the highest risk group?

By the end of March, only 50 supported accommodation sites had received any vaccines. In mid-May, just 4.34% of people in supported accommodation had been vaccinated.

Supported accommodation operators started recommending their residents book a vaccine with their GP, rather than waiting for one at home. Then, the government opened registrations for Pfizer vaccinations for Australians under 50 in NSW, without finishing phase 1a. The Disability Royal Commission announced a hearing into the vaccine rollout.

That’s when we got fed up with waiting.

Falling through the cracks

In early May, my mum took the plunge and tried to book my sister a vaccine independently of the supported accommodation rollout. By this time, AstraZeneca was no longer recommended for under-50s, so the GP route wasn’t an option. So, mum rang the Pfizer hub.

“No,” they told her. “We’re not supposed to vaccinate people with disability who live in supported accommodation here. They need to get their vaccination at home.”

“Why?” my mum protested.

“People with disability aren’t suitable to wait in line.”

Besides this being a huge and damaging generalisation, it left us with a Catch-22: supported accommodation said to go to the hub, but the hub said to wait for the supported accommodation rollout – which, by now, we understood to be an endless black hole.

This is how people fall through the supposed ‘cracks’ in the system.

Thankfully, mum is good at arguing. Eventually, begrudgingly, the phone operator gave her the link to register for a vaccine appointment.

And so, my sister got her vaccine.

What astounded us most is what happened on the day: my mum and sister booked accessible parking and entered via a dedicated accessible entrance, where there were no queues. They were done in 30 minutes, including observation time, and offered extra assistance if they needed it.

So the queues – the supposed problem – weren’t a problem at all. The accessibility at the hub was actually excellent. The person managing the bookings just didn’t know this, and instead, overlaid their own prejudices into the administration.

Why should people with disability and their families have to argue with prejudiced, incompetent systems to receive something they’re entitled to and upon which their lives depend? What about people who don’t have the skills or resources to do that? What happens to them?

Our advice: Bypass the argument. Go to the eligibility tracker and just try and book (aim for early morning, and book accessible parking too).

This issue is slowly gaining more attention. Hopefully the Disability Royal Commission hearing has had an impact. But it shouldn’t have been this hard. It shouldn’t have taken so long.

Australia needs to do better.

Dr Ariella Meltzer is the sister of a woman with disability living in supported accommodation. She is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, University of New South Wales.


See Croakey’s archive of stories on disabilities and health.

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