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Maryland places disabled adults in group homes high on vaccine priority list

From left, Matthew, Emily, George, Graham, Susan and Warren Hartung. Emily and Warren Hartung live in group homes for developmentally challenged adults in Montgomery County.
From left, Matthew, Emily, George, Graham, Susan and Warren Hartung. Emily and Warren Hartung live in group homes for developmentally challenged adults in Montgomery County. (Susan Hartung)

Thousands of Marylanders with intellectual disabilities who live in group homes, and those who care for them, learned Tuesday that they would soon be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, putting an end to weeks of lobbying and worry.

In what came as a surprise announcement to providers, advocates and relatives of the disabled, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said residents and staff of “special-needs group homes” will be included in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, along with individuals over 75, teachers and child-care workers. This group, which totals about 860,000 residents, could start receiving doses of the vaccine by late January, Hogan said.

“We’re delighted. … To us, this feels massive,” said David Ervin, chief executive for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, which operates 29 facilities for adults with disabilities in Virginia and Maryland. “To be explicitly named now in Phase 1B gives us something to hang on to.”

Ervin, along with other providers and advocates, said he has been lobbying Maryland officials since early December to include individuals with disabilities in the state’s top-priority group, but received no response until Hogan’s news conference Tuesday.

In contrast, Virginia said in its Dec. 4 vaccine distribution plan that facilities for people with developmental disabilities would be in the top-priority group for vaccinations.

D.C. officials have said “residential care community residents” will be in the first phase of its distribution plan, but a spokesman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not respond to questions Tuesday about whether this category includes residents of group homes.

Answers to questions on the vaccine rollout in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

A recent study that includes data from Maryland showed that people with intellectual disabilities are at least twice as likely as other members of the public to die of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Dozens of group homes in the state have experienced severe outbreaks of the virus among residents and staff, advocates say. In addition to stockpiling adequate protective equipment, it has been especially challenging to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities take the precautions recommended to lower transmission of the virus, such as wearing masks or maintaining physical distance from one another.

Ervin and other providers say they watched with confusion in recent weeks as states such as New Jersey and Ohio gave top vaccination priority to group home residents, while Maryland health officials stayed mum on the issue. A draft vaccination plan that Maryland issued in October said “group home” residents would be in Priority Group 2, but that plan did not make clear whether the category included people with cognitive disabilities.

Susan Hartung, 66, said she “wavered between heartbreak and fury” over the lack of clarity from state officials. Her two adult children with intellectual disabilities live in group homes five minutes from where she lives in Montgomery Village, but they have not been able to make their bimonthly home visits since the start of the pandemic.

Neither has caught the virus, though they have been exposed multiple times to caregivers who tested positive, she said. Hartung said she has been particularly worried about her son, who is nonverbal. If he caught the virus, he would be unlikely to cooperate with the treatment that he may need, such as being intubated, she said.

After weeks of writing letters to state and local officials appealing for vaccine priority, Hartung said Hogan’s announcement made her “very, very happy.”

“We’re just extremely relieved,” she added. “Just to be able to hug my kids again will be huge. The idea that they’re going to be safe — it’s huge.”

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