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‘It’s really tough’: Disability advocates frustrated over vaccine access

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MADISON (WKOW) -- While Wisconsin has made tremendous progress in using its share of COVID-19 vaccine doses, advocates for people with disabilities say the state's most vulnerable still face too many hurdles in receiving the vaccine.

Department of Health Services officials said Thursday the state has now administered 1.28 million doses with 416,358 residents fully vaccinated.

State health officials also confirmed teachers and child care workers will have top priority in the next group of people becoming eligible for vaccination next Monday, March 1.

Barbara Beckert, who directs the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin, said the news dismayed those with relatives younger than 65 years old who live in group homes that provide long-term care. DHS announced that group was prioritized in group 1B behind educators and frontline workers like food service and transit employees.

"We were very surprised when DHS made the announcement recently that [congregated living residents being prioritized] was not going to be the case," Beckert said. "So I think that's been confusing and disappointing to a lot of folks in the disability community."

Another issue both Beckert and Denise Jess raised was the number of vaccinators who only allow people to request an appointment via an online portal. Jess, who's the CEO of the Wisconsin Council for the Blind & Visually Impaired, said it was also frustrating to hear health systems tell the public not to call for information or appointment requests.

"We have a lot of places in the state that do not have reliable broadband," Jess said. "And we have a lot of folks who are not computer users -- so many of the sign-ups require internet access."

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said when the state's vaccine registry goes online next month, it will include a phone option.

"We've been working very hard on always making sure there is a telephone number as well as an online option for people to get information or to register for vaccines," Van Dijk said at a press briefing Thursday.

Jess cited transportation as another significant barrier that has constantly drawn questions and complaints. While more vaccinators are coming online and vaccination sites like the Alliant Energy Center have been open for weeks, Jess said it does little good for people who don't have a car or family who can drive them to those places.

"You're then being told, if you're going to your clinic, to wait in your car until we call you," Jess said of drive-up vaccination clinics. "Where do you wait when you don't have a car?"

Van Dijk said DHS was working with local health departments and free clinics to form more mobile vaccination services that could bring the vaccine to vulnerable residents who have a hard time leaving their homes.

Division of Public Health Immunization Program Manager Stephanie Schauer said DHS was working with its retail partner, Walgreens, to create a system where stores would directly call residents 65 and older to get them in for vaccinations, with an emphasis on people of color as Black and Hispanic residents have continued to have disproportionately low vaccination rates.

Van Dijk said the agency was also fulfilling the full vaccine requests of Federally Qualified Health Centers and free clinics to help get doses into underserved communities.

Schauer added there's also an educational component and DHS was trying to work with community leaders to convince skeptical residents the vaccine is safe and effective.

"We have released a request for applications geared toward community-based organizations who will help and do outreach and fund individuals in communities that have been disproportionately affected," Schauer said.

Beckert said she felt DHS was being responsive and has made adjustments after consulting with disability community advocates. Still, she said the frustration for many residents was undeniable.

"Seeing some progress there but still a lot of opportunities to make it more accessible and easier to navigate," Beckert said. "It's really tough for a lot of the people we advocate for, and with, to understand the current process."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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