Rainbow Rant: Will the CDC protect my dad?

Chronically ill citizens and people with disabilities are paying the price for the CDC's failing COVID mitigation plans. My father is one of them.

Joy Ellison
Late Thursday night and against the guidance of CDC advisers, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added a vast category to the groups eligible for vaccine booster shots: workers whose jobs put them at high risk of contracting COVID-19. STORY, PAGE XA

The director of the CDC said last week that it was “really encouraging” that the Omicron variant is predominately killing people like my father. 

Perhaps that’s unfair. I’m biased, after all. I’ll let you be the judge.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky said of the current surge: “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 — and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.”

The comments created an immediate firestorm online and within the media, though some dismissed the controversy as overblown, pointing to the fact that Walensky's statement wasn't presented in its full context. (The director was actually referring to a study of vaccinated people and the small number of deaths among them, discussion edited from the clip aired by “Good Morning, America.”)

Even within this context, however, some remained understandably displeased. “[It] highlights the fact that the Director and the CDC view people with disabilities as acceptable losses during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maria Town, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Her comments, even with the additional context, reveal the systemic and institutional biases against disabled people that determine our lives are inherently worth less.”

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My father is one of 7 to 10 million Americans who are immunocompromised. When I was 4 years old, his heart gave out. The doctors could never figure out why; he was young, active and never a smoker or drinker. But he needed a new heart, and because he had every possible privilege, he got one. Now my father takes medication that suppresses the functioning of his immune system so that his body does not attack his new organ. That means even though he is fully vaccinated and boosted, he will not be able to mount a real fight against the coronavirus. 

My father is a retired chemistry teacher, and he fills his days waging the same struggles for peace and environmental justice that he and my mother have fought since I was a child. He hopes to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign this summer, but that won’t happen if the pandemic continues. Until it is over, my father and mother are stuck in March 2020. 

My father has survived the pandemic this long because he is profoundly advantaged: He is insured and able to stay safe at home. But if my father catches COVID, he will likely die. 

My father is not “unwell.” He is by far the fittest member of our family. He loves hiking and biking. But because of his condition, I have only visited him once since the pandemic began. During those precious 10 days, we spent hours walking through the park looking at birds. He can identify all the common ones: the flickers, downy woodpeckers, bush tits, spotted towhees and house sparrows. I knew it might be the last time I saw him, and I savored our time together.

My father’s good health, however, doesn’t make his life any more valuable than my loved ones who are chronically ill. Call me ridiculous, but my parents taught me that we each deserve care and compassion simply by virtue of being alive. 

Dr. Walensky’s statement reflects long-standing ableist attitudes and public policies that are far, far bigger than her. Disabled and chronically ill people have long been ignored or sacrificed at the altar of low taxes and high profits. That was our nation’s COVID policy before she put her foot deep inside her mouth. Still, it’s enraging to hear a public health official charged with protecting us speak with such callous disregard. 

The CDC must develop a better response to this ongoing public health crisis than simply urging everyone to get vaccinated. That plan is clearly failing and people like my father are paying a deadly price. 

Right now, the CDC’s COVID mitigation strategy can be summed up as “Let them eat cake... at work, in a crowded, poorly ventilated room while the health care system falls to pieces.” There is clearly much more that could be done. 

The Biden administration and Congress could work to distribute high-quality masks and tests, require increased safety standards from employers, and provide support so that more non-essential workers can stay home. Most importantly, they can stand up to pharmaceutical companies that are making it more difficult to do the only thing that will bring the pandemic to a close: get vaccines to everyone the world over, regardless of an ability to pay.

The pandemic should not be approached as a problem primarily caused by our individual behaviors. While we each have a responsibility to get vaccinated and mitigate our risk, individual action will not be enough to bring this to a close. We need our leaders to treat this as a public health problem and pursue policies that protect everyone. 

That’s the only thing that will keep my father and millions like him alive.