Manitoba man says province’s vaccine prioritization violates Human Rights Code

WINNIPEG — A Manitoba man is urging the federal government to give COVID-19 vaccine priority to those living with Down syndrome, saying that he believes the current system violates the Human Rights Code.

Dr. Bruce Strang, whose 16-year-old son Sean lives with Down syndrome and a severe autoimmune deficiency disorder, said he started to look into the issue after he attended a webinar with Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, and parents of people with disabilities.

Strang said during this webinar, Roussin reiterated that the vaccine will be rolled out by age, and that accommodations won’t be made for those with disabilities.

“I was devastated when I heard that,” he said.

“In my view, it was intellectually lazy and frankly really intellectually dishonest the way he rationalized the vaccine rollout.”

Strang said the government’s response is also not the law.

He said that in Manitoba there is a Human Rights Code that places positive onus on the government to provide substantive equity for people with disabilities.

“That doesn’t mean just treat them the same as any 16-year-old or any other 25-year-old or 30-year-old,” Strang said.

“It means they have to make a positive effort to make up for Sean’s illness, or the illness of anybody else with Down syndrome to try to put them on par with anybody of that age group.”

Strang added that to suggest that people with disabilities should just wait for their age group, despite their exceptionally heightened health risks, is contrary to the Human Rights Code.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

Strang said that any adult living with Down syndrome is at high risk for an increased chance of hospitalization or death if they contract COVID-19.

He said this happens for several reasons, including genetic makeup.

Strang added that there is evidence that certain genes that people with Down syndrome carry help to trigger a “cascading immunological response,” which means if they get the disease, their entire system becomes dysregulated.

“There is also a clear pattern with people with Down syndrome, even without any kind of immune dysregulation, that they’re enormously prone to secondary bacteriological infections,” he said.

Strang explained that while a person might get the flu and recover from it, a person with Down syndrome would often get another condition, such as pneumonia, and require multiple rounds of antibiotics.

THE PROVINCE RESPONDS

At a news conference on Wednesday, Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s Vaccine Implementation Task Force, said there’s no doubt people with disabilities could be at a higher risk.

However, she said, the province looked at all health conditions, including disabilities, when deciding on the vaccine rollout, and determined the age-based approach was the best choice.

“First off, it encompassed a lot of people, probably the majority of people, who experience disabilities, but also was the most efficient way possible to reach the highest-risk people as quickly as possible,” she said.

Reimer added that there is a wide range of severity of health conditions for people with Down syndrome. She said some people are immunocompromised; some have heart defects; others are in good physical health.

“So if we included everybody with Down syndrome, it would mean including those highest-risk folks, but also the lower-risk people, and it would mean doing it at the expense of elderly Manitobans, because we don’t have enough doses to provide to everybody at the same time,” she said.

Reimer said she’d love to give the vaccine to anyone who is at high risk of severe outcomes, but that is just not possible with Manitoba’s current supply.

Reimer noted with the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the province will start to look more at other health conditions and try to ensure high-risk people in younger cohorts get prioritized.

 HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED?

 If someone is looking to help advocate, there are online petitions and websites campaigning for people with Down syndrome.

“I approached the government and phoned the Ministry of Health and was told there was no one there who could speak about the issue with me,” Strang said.

Strang noted that he also sent a detailed email to the minister of health two weeks ago, but has only received an automatically generated response.

– With files from CTV’s Nicole Dube.

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