It has been a weird, challenging, changing world for the last 16 months. My family’s particular slice of weirdness has meant living in two very different parts of the country and seeing firsthand the dramatic differences in COVID policies and practices. The contrast hit me today as I was comparing vaccination rates: my Washington, DC-area home in Takoma Park, Maryland – ZIP 20912 – has a vaccination rate for residents 12 years old and older of 88%, while my rural Indiana home (where I isolated for most of the pandemic) – ZIP 46052 – is only at 48%.
These examples are not outliers. The gap between the most- and least-vaccinated places in the U.S. continues to widen despite ongoing efforts to persuade more Americans to get a shot. In the bottom fifth of American counties, only 28% of people, on average, have received a first dose and just 24% are fully vaccinated.
Rates vary by other factors as well, including race, education, socioeconomic status and political affiliation. Our American culture’s romanticization of an independent spirit creates an environment where the fates of other communities may feel both separate from us and beyond our reach. My life and my work, both firmly in the disability space, have created a very different view. As is often the case, the disability community is clearly impacted by the realities of how interdependent we are. I am kept up at night worrying about the dangers low vaccination rates pose to disabled people:
- Direct support workers—those that support activities of daily living, often in vey close contact with the people the support—are disproportionately from under vaccinated communities. This results in not just increased risk of exposure, but also continuing high rates of disruption to access to care when workers are sick or quarantined.
- Some portion of people with disabilities remain at risk even when vaccinated because of how our bodies’ immune responses are different. The research is underway to better understand this, but the truth is we NEED people without these disabilities to be vaccinated to create safe communities. Without high vaccination rates our risks will continue to leave us isolated and segregated from society.
- And, of course, the nightmare scenario is the virus continuing to mutate—low vaccination rates and increased spread provide optimal conditions for mutations—and evolving into a variant against which our fantastic vaccines will not work.
Despite the Biden administration’s “month of action” to hit its vaccine target of 70% of adults with at least one dose by July 4, the vaccination rate is slowing, and some areas have proven hard to reach. We know that personal relationships and clear, honest communication are the most effective ways to convince those who are not yet vaccinated. That work is the responsibility of all of us. As outside of our comfort zones as it might seem, we need to be reaching out to folks we know:
- Checking that they are vaccinated
- Asking what barriers they need help to overcome if they are not
- Explaining the importance of protecting themselves and others
- Following up
The surging Delta variant creates a real urgency – the call you make now to get someone vaccinated is a call that will likely save a life.