Michiganders with disabilities face greater challenges getting access to care and worse outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic, but we still don’t know how many are sick.
DETROIT, Mich.—Thursday, Dec. 3, another 7,146 people in Michigan were diagnosed with the coronavirus. No data exists on how many of those people had disabilities.
Thursday was also Persons with Disabilities Day, so Detroit Disability Power (DDP) took the opportunity to again call for that number to be tracked.
“COVID continues to hit Michigan hard and it’s showing a real strain on our healthcare system. We need to ensure that everyone can be taken care of and that’s especially true for the disabled community, who are already underserved and often overlooked,” Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, told The ‘Gander. “Several times now, we’ve made strong recommendations to state officials on how to improve care and the response to this pandemic for the community and we urge our state’s leaders to implement them without delay.”
Since the outset, Michigan has tracked coronavirus cases by age, gender and race and those demographics have been used to get a full picture of disparate health outcomes for Michiganders of color and the elderly. That data confirms that people facing medical bias in other areas face disproportionate outcomes for coronavirus as well.
But there are other vulnerable groups who face barriers to access to health care the state doesn’t track. Data also isn’t gathered about transgender Michiganders, who like people with disabilities often have other health complications or barriers to access healthcare that pose the likelihood for severe inequity in coronavirus cases.
“Adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities and have historically lacked equitable access to the level of medical care necessary to manage these conditions,” argued a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry. “This disproportionate toll must be offset by clarifying the extent to which preexisting health disparities are now accentuated by COVID-19 and by guarding against the compounding of inequity on the basis of limitations to in-person medical appointments and/or the rationing of intensive care.”
The Journal was particularly concerned with people with developmental disabilities, who have an even more challenging time navigating the system around coronavirus testing and treatment. That challenge hits home for Michiganders in the Blue Water area.
An outbreak in late October in St. Clair County included, for instance, the students at the Woodland Developmental Center in Marysville. Many of those students face severe, chronic health conditions that compromise their immune system, and most have social or developmental conditions that make pandemic safety protocols a challenge for Woodland staff.
Woodland students, as Americans with developmental disabilities, were three times more likely to die after being diagnosed than their peers, the New York Times found.
So addressing those inequities matters. And overtures have been made toward doing so. In April, Gov,. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order committing the state to an antidiscrimination policy and ordered the creation of plans to ensure equitable access to health, but without data on what inequities exist, addressing them is a monumental challenge, DDP argues.
“Without tracking the disability status of COVID patients, the state does not even have a baseline from which to measure how we are doing as a community,” Cosma said.
And, with the Michigan Supreme Court overturning many of Gov. Whitmer’s coronavirus protections, DDP says there’s an imminent need for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to reissue that commitment to equitable access.
Though if there is a silver lining to be found, the World Bank says it’s an opportunity in this moment to develop empathy for the daily lives of people with disabilities. In a way, social distancing resembles the kind of challenges faced every day by other Michiganders.
“For the first time, the world has experienced self-isolation. Being a wheelchair user myself for the past 12 years, I know exactly how it feels,” Muniba Mazari, a disability champion and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador from Pakistan, said to the World Bank. “Let’s be more kind and be more accepting towards one another. Now is the time to be more considerate and more empathetic.”
Michiganders can consult the state’s website for coronavirus resources.