A Brandon father is accusing the provincial government of “blatant discrimination” against his teenage son, who has Down syndrome, because Manitobans with disabilities have been left off the COVID-19 immunization priority list.
Bruce Strang said he filed a formal complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission this week to pressure the province to edit its vaccination plan.
“Disability rights shouldn’t be the first thing to go in a time of crisis,” Strang, a father of two, told the Free Press. “It’s unethical in my view. It’s unconscionable in my view and I can’t see how a medical professional can advocate for a plan that discriminates actively against people with disabilities.”
Strang’s oldest son, Sean, 16, hasn’t been in a classroom — let alone, left his family home for any other reason — for nearly a year because of his immunocompromised status.
(While Health Canada has approved Moderna and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines for anyone 18 and older, Pfizer-BioNTech doses can be given to patients as young as 16.)
Health-care workers, seniors and staff in long-term care facilities, adults who are 80 or older and the elderly in remote and isolated Indigenous communities make up the priority population in Manitoba.
The province has started to vaccinate the general population, based solely on age.
Strang said his son should not get priority over an 85-year-old who lives in a nursing home, but it doesn’t make sense that Sean can expect a vaccine at the same time a healthy teenager can.
People with Down syndrome are nearly five times more at risk of COVID-19-related hospitalization and 10 times more likely to die after contracting the virus in comparison to the general population, according to a U.K. study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in autumn.
The population’s unique genetics and predisposition to respiratory illnesses are believed to be contributing factors.
Ready for My Shot, a countrywide campaign, is calling on all jurisdictions to clearly identify adults with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities as high priority patients, citing that research.
Only the Northwest Territories has explicitly opened up vaccine appointments to adults with disabilities.
“I would love to be able to offer vaccine to everybody — everyone in Manitoba, but, certainly, everybody who’s at any level of higher risk. We just don’t have that luxury until we have more supply,” said Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force, when pressed on the subject during a news conference Wednesday.
Reimer said all health conditions that put people at a higher risk, including Down syndrome, will be considered as more doses become available.
Mike Waddingham, an organizer with Ready for My Shot, called that reasoning — that this is a supply-linked issue — “a red herring.”
“You either accept that people with Down syndrome are at higher risks and therefore should be prioritized with other people who are high risk, like elderly people or Indigenous people, or you don’t,” said Waddingham, when reached by phone in Burnaby, B.C., Thursday.
Given the commission complaint process is a lengthy one, Strang suspects the immunization issue will have passed by the time his grievance is resolved; nevertheless, he said the act of filing a complaint sends an important message.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press