Disability advocates demanded a public apology from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky after she called it “encouraging news” that the majority of COVID-19 deaths among the vaccinated were of people with preexisting medical conditions — or “who were unwell to begin with,” as she put it.
On Friday, leaders from several disability advocacy groups held a call with Walensky in which the CDC director apologized for her “hurtful” remarks last week on “Good Morning America.” Advocates in turn demanded a public apology from Walensky to the disability community.
In last week’s GMA interview, Walensky described a study of people who had been vaccinated, saying: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, 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… we’re really encouraged by these results.”
People with disabilities were outraged, using the hashtag on Twitter #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy, started by activist Imani Barbarin, to call out the remarks for having “pushed the narrative of vulnerable people’s lives being disposable” and implying that their “lives aren’t worth protecting.”
After Friday’s call, Walensky tweeted her thanks to disability advocates for the meeting, saying she “look[s] forward to our continued engagements to address the disparities and inequities made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The CDC’s readout of the call noted that Walensky had “apologized for the hurtful, yet unintentional, statement pertaining to COVID-19 deaths and comorbidities,” and committed the CDC to “regular engagements” with the disability community.
After meeting with Walensky, disability advocates said on a press call that the most important matter moving forward would be for Walensky to follow up her apology with policy changes.
In a letter put out Thursday, over 140 disability advocacy groups noted that people with disabilities and preexisting conditions have been disproportionately killed by COVID-19 and that “each of these deaths is a devastating loss to families, friends and to our broader communities.”
“The dismissal and devaluation of people with disabilities has been our daily experience throughout this pandemic,” the letter read.
The groups’ demands include regular, ongoing meetings between CDC leadership and disability groups, as well as a call for the CDC to center people with disabilities and other communities disproportionately impacted by the virus in all of its COVID-19 guidance to the public.
The coronavirus has killed over 840,000 people in the U.S. in the past two years, and people with disabilities have disproportionately faced severe illness, hospitalization and death. With the omicron variant spreading, cases have surged across the country in recent weeks.
Wendy Lu contributed reporting.