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Op-Ed | Children with developmental disabilities and autism must be protected amid COVID-19 pandemic

REUTERS/David 'Dee' Delgado

As a long-term care pharmacist who supplies the daily medication needs for some 3,000 people with developmental disabilities and autism in New York group residences, I have tried to use my three decades of professional career experience to put into perspective what has been happening with the COVID vaccine.

The community I service has a very high COVID vaccination record.

I am most concerned at this point about some 6,000 children, ages thirteen and under with developmental disabilities, and some 27,000 children thirteen and under with autism, in New York State.  In large measure, the Federal government has not yet made any vaccine protection available for this population.  Many people in this population have compromised immune systems due to their conditions.  Their weak immunity makes them more vulnerable to COVID.  

While most of this population does not reside in group settings, most of them are enrolled in education and program facilities where they are exposed to groups of people.  

In many cases, all of us have become numb to the conflicting information and politics communicated about COVID.  In comparison to epidemics like polio or smallpox, Internet/Web transparency has laid bare the contradictory statements made by many of our government and public health officials.

True, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has not yet officially “approved” the Moderna vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.  As we all know, this class of vaccines were developed in record time (similar to the effort when science came together for the “Manhattan Project”).  So, with the exception of the Pfizer vaccine (which has received FDA “approval”), the others are being distributed as a part of an emergency use authorization by the FDA.  And, the FDA has not yet announced any guidance on the COVID booster vaccination.  (This agency just authorized boosters for immunocompromised people.)

In my personal belief, the COVID vaccines have value and benefit.  It is important for all people to be vaccinated at this time.  A minority of people may have pre-existing medical conditions that preclude them from being vaccinated, but all others should receive the vaccine.  In 1905 the United States Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts law requiring residents to be vaccinated during an outbreak of smallpox.  Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote:

“The good and welfare of the Commonwealth, of which the legislature is primarily the judge, is the basis on which the police power rests in Massachusetts,” Harlan said “upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”  

COVID presents a threat to the safety of everyone in our community.  It is our civic duty to work together to meet the threat COVID presents.  Vaccination is the only effective way.  As Pope Francis put it, receiving a COVID vaccine is “an act of love.”  While we get vaccinated to prevent ourselves from getting a disease, all of our community benefits.

As a comparison, the flu vaccine programs largely undertaken by the nation’s physicians and retail pharmacists have operated in the U.S., very successfully for many years.  It is a shame that the COVID vaccine effort turned into such a lightning rod, which became negative and misunderstood.

These decisions should be about education, communication, information, and access.

I hope that parents of children with developmental disabilities and autism, who often cannot advocate for themselves, are proactive here.  They should endeavor to make the best decision for their children about the COVID vaccine.

Angelo Angerame is the CEO of the Hudson Regional Long-Term Care Pharmacy in Middletown, New York.

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