#HighRiskCA Movement Calls Out Ableism in Vaccine Distribution: “High-Risk is High-Risk”

“California was the birthplace of the disability rights movement. We’ve got a progressive governor; we’re one of the wealthiest states in the country. Why in the world are we lagging behind all these other states?”

Since the COVID vaccine was first announced last year, the question of who should be prioritized to receive the vaccine has been at the forefront of state policy issues. Disabled activists and Twitter users have started the hashtag #HighRiskCA to highlight the ways in which California’s age-tiered vaccine distribution system will negatively impact and kill disabled people and others who may be younger but at higher risk. 

This comes as states across the country—from Ohio and New York, to New Mexico and Oregon—have opened up vaccine distribution to those with disabilities under the age 65.

The hashtag was started by Bay Area-based disability rights advocate Alice Wong. Similar hashtags highlighting the fears of high-risk people in other states have cropped up in days since.

“I am filled with fear for myself and others. I also refuse to defend my humanity and prove my deservingness for the vaccine in comparison to other high-risk groups. High-risk is high-risk,” Wong said, in a video statement. 

In her statement, Wong also highlighted the high-risk disabled people who, due to being essential workers, unhoused people, using in-person assistive care, or members of other high-risk communities that may have decreased vaccine access, will be at even higher risk of contracting and dying due to COVID-19.

“This is clearly erasure; this is eugenics, and I consider this a form of violence. It is a form of violence against the most marginalized communities,” Wong told the Los Angeles Times.

The organization Disability Rights California has also condemned the state’s policy decisions, and held a press conference featuring the stories of disabled people and calling upon Governor Gavin Newsom to take action and support high risk individuals.

“The governor has said he is committed to equity. We share his commitment, and we support vaccinating older Californians as a priority group—but the commitment to equity is meaningless if all of the high-risk people who aren’t over 65 have to wait until June to be vaccinated,” said executive director Andy Imparato. “So many people living with high-risk disabilities, including those who are also in marginalized communities, are going to die if the governor doesn’t reconsider.”

“California was the birthplace of the disability rights movement. We’ve got a progressive governor, we’re one of the wealthiest states in the country,” Imparato continued. “Why in the world are we lagging behind all these other states?”

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People have been sharing their experiences as members of high-risk groups through the hashtag:


California’s current rules allow vaccination for those over 65, along with some essential workers, like health care workers, teachers and farm workers. But in terms of who comes next, the state has gone back and forth several times over the course of planning vaccine rollout. One recently proposed plan allowed for people with certain disabilities to go next, after the over-65s and certain essential workers. 

A potential new plan, announced last week by the Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, would include people with certain disabilities—but the details of which conditions would qualify one for vaccine access are unclear, and the plan would only apply to vaccines given in medical settings where underlying conditions or disabilities could be verified, excluding the more widely accessible mass vaccination sites the state is set to roll out later this month. 

Furthermore, over the weekend Phase 1C, the phase that would have included high-risk people under age 65 along with essential workers, disappeared from the California Vaccination Plan and California Department of Public Health websites.

As the Sacramento Bee reported, data that has been reviewed by the committee shows that adults with underlying conditions were more than three times as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, and disabled individuals were two to three times more likely to die after contracting the virus. Analysis that has focused on Californians with disabilities under the age of 65 has revealed that the group is generally at higher mortality risk than non-disabled groups over 65.

As the state continues to change its guidelines, high-risk individuals continue to remind policy makers that leaving the house right now, for so many, is a matter of life or death.

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Oliver Haug is a social media editor and podcast producer with Ms. magazine. They are also a freelance journalist, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues and sexual politics. Their writing has previously appeared in Bitch Magazine, VICE, them.us, the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit," and elsewhere. You can read more of their work here, and follow them on Twitter @cohaug.