A remark by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about who is likeliest to die from the coronavirus prompted an outpouring of grief and rage from people with disabilities or chronic illnesses that has not abated almost a week later.
In a television appearance last Friday, the director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, discussed the results of a new study of 1.2 million vaccinated people, finding that only 0.003 percent of them had died from Covid-19.
Given “encouraging headlines” about “this new study showing just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness,” Cecilia Vega of ABC News asked Dr. Walensky, “is it time to start rethinking about how we’re living with this virus, that it’s potentially here to stay?”
Dr. Walensky’s response, which her agency argues was poorly edited and taken out of context, angered many Americans with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Advocacy groups requested a meeting with Dr. Walensky, which has been scheduled for Friday, and released an open letter on Thursday.
“The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so, really, these are people who were unwell to begin with,” Dr. Walensky said in the interview. “And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron. This means not only to get your primary series, but to get your booster series, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
To many Americans with comorbidities — a term that encompasses many kinds of conditions, from immunosuppression to cystic fibrosis to obesity — these comments were something of a last straw, exhausting their patience with a federal pandemic response that they see as cavalierly dismissive of their lives. When they began posting on social media using the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy, their complaints were about much more than one comment.
The C.D.C. said that what Dr. Walensky was calling “encouraging news” was the study’s finding that vaccines protect most people from serious illness and death, not the fact that those who did die tended to be people with disabilities. This week, ABC replaced its original, edited video online with a longer version in which she prefaced her comments with a quick summary of the research.
Disability advocates said that the context did not make her remarks less hurtful — that they still presented the deaths of disabled people as a footnote. And they said that the agency’s defense was missing context, too: its pandemic response over the past two years.
“Even including the part that was edited out, that would make no difference,” said Imani Barbarin, who started the #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy hashtag. She added, “Even when someone’s misspeaking or not getting their point across correctly, that still means harm for us.”
As for the study that Dr. Walensky was discussing, Ms. Barbarin said that it might be encouraging for generally healthy people, but “for us, it’s terrifying.”
Advocates said the federal government had failed disabled Americans throughout the pandemic by, among other things, failing to make at-home tests and high-quality masks widely available, or provide clear public health guidance, or increase global vaccinations fast enough to prevent the emergence of new variants like Omicron.
“Director Walensky’s comments aren’t a kind of one-off, flippant response,” said Maria Town, the president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “One of the reasons her comments are so concerning is because they reveal the way that people with disabilities have been deprioritized and viewed as acceptable losses.”
A C.D.C. spokesman said: “Dr. Walensky did not intend comments in a recent television appearance to be hurtful toward those with disabilities. She is deeply concerned and cares about the health and well-being of people with disabilities and those with medical conditions who have been impacted by Covid-19.”
Covid-19 Live: Vaccines, Mandates and Omicron Updates – The New York Times