People with disability 'completely overlooked' as Omicron surges

People with disability are being asked to make enormous sacrifices this Christmas so that people can go without wearing masks and have drinks at the pub, it is claimed.

Children skate around a Christmas tree in Martin Place on December 17, 2021 in Sydney,

The festive season is here, but many are living in fear as COVID-19 case numbers rise. Source: Getty

As the Omicron variant sweeps through Australia, many people with disability are feeling on edge ahead of the end-of-year holidays.

Disability activist El Gibbs lives in regional New South Wales and is severely immunocompromised.

As restrictions ease and the state's mask mandate is scrapped, she’s watching the new variant spread with trepidation.

Ms Gibbs told SBS News it would be a “complete disaster” if she was infected with COVID-19. 

“I’m fully vaccinated but the people who are ending up in ICU and dying with double vaccinations are people like me,” she said.

“Watching a new variant come along is very hard … I do feel like the needs of disabled and sick people have been completely overlooked.”

el gibbs
Disability activist and writer, El Gibbs. Source: Supplied

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week that those who feel uncomfortable about going out can “choose to stay home.”

"My simple message to Australians is to go about your lives, enjoy the summer, exercise the common-sense precautions that you would," Mr Morrison said.

"If you're feeling uncertain, then it's not compulsory to go out. It's not compulsory not to wear a mask either."

Echoing this message, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has urged residents to take “personal responsibility” for their health.

The premier has refused to make masks mandatory indoors or reintroduce further restrictions despite daily case numbers hitting record highs over the weekend.

NSW reported 2,501 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday - a drop of 65 cases on the previous day's count of 2,566 infections.

“We recommend face masks ... It is a time of personal responsibility in our state,” Mr Perrottet said on Monday.

“We are treating people in our state like adults.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottett speaks to the media during a press conference on Dec 20.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet speaks to the media during a press conference on Dec 20. Source: AAP

Mr Perrottet argued the focus should be on hospitalisations rather than case numbers but warned that restrictions could tighten up if ICU wards are overwhelmed.

"We will always tailor our response to the circumstances - ICU presentations are key," he said.

"If we need to tailor our responses from time to time, we will. There are challenging times today, there will be challenging times tomorrow."

But Ms Gibbs feels those with disability have been forgotten by state and federal governments as Australia reopens.

“I can take all the personal responsibility in the world but if I need to go and do an essential thing like go to the supermarket, other people's actions have a direct impact on it,” she said. 

“We are being made to ask enormous, difficult decisions so that other people can go to the pub … and so other people don’t have to wear a mask.”

Ms Gibbs said she recognises her situation is more privileged than most as she is able to work from home.

“If you're a disabled person who needs to go out to work or is trying to live on income support. What are you meant to do?

“If you're asking us to stay at home then you have to provide us with the support that we need and that includes things like… [financial] supplements to help with the costs and making rapid agent antigen testing available to all of us.”

Vaccination concerns

With the rapid acceleration of Omicron cases, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations (ATAGI) recently reduced the period between someone's second vaccination and a booster dose from six to five months.

In October, ATAGI recommended that immunocompromised people have a third primary dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to bring them up to the same level of protection as the general population.

However, ATAGI does not currently recommend a fourth 'booster' shot for severely immunocompromised people on top of the third primary dose.

People with Disability Australia president Samantha Connor said she’s concerned about transmission over Christmas and claims some people are still struggling to access a third primary shot of the vaccine.

“Some people aren't eligible [for a third dose yet] because they didn't make the program wide enough to encompass people with disabilities who needed to get one,” she said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and Jane Malysiak (right) receive their COVID-19 booster vaccination at Kildare Road Medical Centre in Blacktown in Sydney, Friday, November 19, 2021. (AAP Image/Pool, Jeremy Piper) NO ARCHIVING
Prime Minister Scott Morrison receives his COVID-19 booster shot. The government is trying to speed up the booster rollout. Source: SBS / , NCA NEWSWIRE POOL

Ms Connor said that people with severe immune disorders will need a fourth shot to bring them up to the same level of protection as the general population.

“It's of concern that we haven't had those conversations and if you look at people with Down Syndrome, for example, who have autoimmune issues, then they're not fully protected,” she said.

“We're looking at 25,000 cases to date by January and 750 admissions to hospital per day."

Fourth shots of COVID-19 vaccines are already being provided overseas in the United States, and countries across Europe and the United Kingdom.

When it comes to the government’s response to the Omicron variant and the rollout of its vaccine program, Ms Connor said “we elect leaders to keep people safe."

“It's not reasonable to ask 20 per cent of the population to stay at home forever. Children need to go to school, adults need to go to work,” she said.

“In the UK and in America, they automatically said that anybody who's chronically vulnerable to coronavirus is able to access a booster shot and that was prior to this new variant.

“So we really have concerns that people don't have the same protections afforded in other countries and that we might have adverse effects for people with disabilities.”

A spokesman for NSW Health said: "In this phase of the pandemic, the onus is on every one of us to keep each other safe, especially our most vulnerable members of the community.

"NSW Health continues to remind everyone across the community to practice COVIDSafe behaviours, including wearing a mask in settings where you cannot physically distance."

It added people should get tested if they have even mild symptoms, and urged people to get a booster shot as soon as they are eligible.

SBS News contacted the Department of Health for comment but they did not respond by deadline. This article will be updated with their response.

6 min read
Published 20 December 2021 at 4:41pm
By Eden Gillespie
Source: SBS