4 or More: A Response to the CDC

Updated: Feb 8

Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said yesterday on Good Morning America that COVID-19 deaths are predominantly affecting people with 4 or more comorbidities or people “who were already unwell to begin with.”

“Phew” was the tone in her voice.

You can listen for yourself on YouTube, but to me it rings with a sigh of relief and an admission that these people, unwell to begin with, are insignificant losses. I mean, if unwell to begin with, what chance did they really have in a pandemic, anyway? They didn’t stand a chance - and this has nothing to do with the CDC’s response to Omicron or any other variant we’ve seen in the almost 3 years in this pandemic.

She then goes on to say that the fact about 75% or people who have died fit this category is “really encouraging news.”

For who? I ask as someone who’d you’d probably never guess fits the description of disabled and chronically ill.

For who? I ask as someone who’d you probably never guess lives with 4 or more comorbidities.

For who? I ask as someone who has been dutifully following the CDC guidelines from day one of the pandemic.

Not for me.

Executive director Susan Henderson for The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund posted an open letter on Twitter on Sunday calling the director’s remarks “abhorrent”:

“Your words convey that the deaths of disabled people…are acceptable,” she wrote.

“Not only is this message from the head of the CDC abhorrent, it perpetuates widely and wrongly held perceptions that disabled people have a worse quality of life than nondisabled people and our lives are more expendable.”

Henderson suggested Walensky “reflect” on her words — and the potentially “fatal” consequences of “the bias behind them” — asking the CDC director to “change how you speak about the lives and deaths of disabled people.”

Rochelle Walensky, I know you’re busy trying to spin what you said into something other than it sounded, so I’d like to wait to see how that goes before doing any kind of open letter.

But you - the person who is reading this - I need you to know something that isn’t being said. You may very well fall into the same category as I do, and even if you don’t, you know someone who does (whether they know it, have official diagnosis, or not).

You see, the list of comorbidities is LONG. It includes health conditions and diseases ranging from asthma to cancer to dementia and diabetes. It also includes mental health conditions like mood disorders and substance use disorders.

Yes, research has shown that living with these disorders puts you at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19, but research has also shown that mood disorders and substance use disorders are on the rise in direct relation to living in a pandemic.

In other words, the category of people who are “unwell” or “disabled and chronically ill” is much larger than most may realize and its continuously growing, which is something we all need to care about.

I know it’s challenging if this is a new way of thinking because, well, it’s been hard for me and those who love me to see me in this category, too. I am still uncomfortable with the terms disabled and chronically ill, to be honest. And with a social climate that devalues our lives as "less than," and also questions the validity of certain diseases, it's really no surprise why!

After all, I still work. I make income. I pay taxes. I look healthy. I live independently. And I come from the era of disabled = wheelchair.

I hope when you see headlines of this “encouraging news” you ask yourself what category the CDC has filed you under. I hope you take this personally. And I hope that should you find yourself categorically “unwell” such as myself, you know you have someone on your side who doesn’t think your life is any less valuable or worthy of protection.

I'll leave off with this message from Brit, a TikToker who describes herself as “a disabled & chronically ill disability justice advocate, who says it better:

“As someone with ‘comorbidities’ or ‘preexisting conditions’ or whatever language we’re using to wrap up disability and chronic illness these days, I don’t think that those numbers are encouraging — at all. And I certainly don’t think that they’re acceptable.

Being disabled doesn’t mean a person is ‘unwell’ and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re going to die anytime soon. And whether Dr. Rochelle Walensky chooses to recognize it or not, our deaths have meaning because our lives have meaning. We are not disposable and none of this should be encouraging or acceptable to anyone.”

Useful Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Certain Conditions. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html#MedicalConditionsAdults

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