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'Our Voices Need To Be Heard': People With Disabilities Speak Out Against COVID Vaccine Priorities

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) -- The change in coronavirus vaccine tiers in California is moving some people with disabilities farther back in the line because they don't meet the immediate age requirements despite their health vulnerabilities, and that is causing some backlash.

Adam Byers, 32, has spinal muscular atrophy, and since last March, he's only left his house once for non-medical reasons because he doesn't want to take the chance of contracting coronavirus due to his weak lungs and potential to deteriorate quickly.

"The prioritization here, it really matters. It's really going to matter with people's lives," Byers said.

Byers is one of many people with disabilities in California who are outraged after Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state would be switching to an age-based vaccination plan, which critics argue will de-prioritize high-risk people under 65.

"Right now, there's a limited supply and when you have a limited supply, the way you're going to save the most lives is vaccinating the riskiest people first. And we're riskier. Disabled Californians are riskier," Byers said.

Forty-five-year-old Tim Jin has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and communicates by typing on an iPad with his toes.

"We are a big part of the community and our voices need to be heard for our well-being," Jin said.

He doesn't understand why he has to wait to get vaccinated when he is so vulnerable around his caretakers.

"I come in contact with multiple people every day because of my cerebral palsy. There is no way for me to know what my workers are doing once they clock out," Jin said.

Jin tells CBS2/KCAL9 he is so scared of contracting coronavirus that he doesn't even go outside to get some fresh air and he feels California leaders are abandoning people with severe disabilities and underlying conditions.

"Millions of people in our disabled community are once again being hidden away and not being seen or heard. It's time for California to recognize that and make us a priority," Jin said.

Judy Mark, the president of Disability Voices United, and others are blasting Newsom's change of course in vaccine prioritization.

She says the governor is not following the science as he claims.

"To us, it makes absolutely no sense to vaccinate a healthy 60-year-old in front of a person with a disability who has a very high risk of dying from COVID, who may be 45," Mark said. "If you look at every single study that has been done on who has had the most hospitalizations, deaths, it is always people with disabilities across all age levels."

On Tuesday, state health officials responded to the concerns of the disabled community and their advocates.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California Health and Human Services Secretary, said plans are in the works to come up with a fair vaccination plan for vulnerable Californians.

"Working with the disability community, working with those who take care of individuals with serious chronic conditions, beginning to galvanize around the policy, we will announce later that brings together an opportunity to vaccinate those individuals all in the same vein where we focus on the older Californians," Ghaly said.

Advocates said they are hoping Newsom, too, will take action quickly.

"We really are calling on Gov Newsom to do the right thing, to keep his promise and allow people with disabilities to be able to have access to the vaccine sooner than later," Mark said.

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