By Alan Gionet

(CBS4) – Almost none of the 20,000 intellectually and developmentally disabled adults in Colorado are vaccinated yet against COVID-19. It hurts Betty Lehman.

“You omit them from the vaccine schedule. What does that tell you? That tells you that you don’t think that he has the same value as other vulnerable people.

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“It’s a statement of worthlessness,” she says as she watches her 32-year-old son Eli make a jigsaw puzzle.

Betty and Eli Lehman

Betty and Eli Lehman (credit: CBS)

Eli is intellectually and developmentally disabled and considered non-verbal, although he does make utterances. She worries about him getting COVID and his other various medical issues making it worse.

“They are going to go into a hospital setting, alone, terrified. I can’t go in there with him. He doesn’t understand that.”

Nor does he understand the risks of getting COVID-19.

“He doesn’t know to keep a social distance. You can put a mask on him, if it falls off, he doesn’t know the difference. He doesn’t understand that you’re not supposed to touch people or be afraid of people who might be sick or coughing on you. He just can’t stay safe on his own.”

Eli lives in a facility where he is under watch 24 hours a day. He has learned tasks as impressive as washing his own clothes. His day programs are shut down. So his mother has been bringing him home. She worries about Eli, a worker, or her getting sick.

“There’s no replacement for me, if he’s coming to my house 26 hours a week and I get COVID, he can’t come here. Then where does he go? He’s locked in his house at that point.”

CBS4’s Alan Gionet interviews Kennedy and Lloyd Lewis. (credit: CBS)

A few miles away, Kennedy Lewis joins his dad Lloyd at the ARC Thrift Store on South Quebec Street. Lloyd Lewis is CEO of the stores. Kennedy is 17. He attends Cherry Creek High School and loves to play basketball. His father says Kennedy, “is a hugging machine.”

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Kennedy is listed in Phase II of the vaccination program because he has Down Syndrome. While he has other medical issues, none are on the list that might move him up.

“I fear for my son’s life,” says Lloyd.

He is worried because a study he’s seen indicates people with intellectual developmental disabilities, who often have additional underlying medical conditions are more likely to die than all others under 70 with COVID except those with lung cancer. The study released by Fair Health, an organization that analyzes health care bills included:

“There are several possible reasons for the high COVID-19 mortality risk in people with developmental disorders and intellectual disabilities. These include greater prevalence of comorbid chronic conditions, disproportionate representation as workers in essential services, and increased COVID-19 transmission in group residential settings.”

The National Institutes of Health released a statement in August noting the difficulty:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

A pharmacist with knowledge of the developmental disability community told CBS4 that some people with disabilities are being put on higher doses of medication because of the pandemic. Anxiety is rising because many are unable to attend day programs or other activities that help them learn and interact.

“Your ability to comprehend a pandemic is pretty limited. All you know is you’re more socially isolated,” says Lloyd Lewis, who also oversees hundreds of employees at the ARC stores with disabilities. Hours have been reduced for those workers.

Betty says Eli is in Phase III of the vaccination program because none of his disabilities put him in a higher category, which is upsetting to Betty.

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“That’s like saying, well who cares if Eli gets sick and dies? Who cares? What value does he have?  .. And that is a horror show of a broken value system.”

Alan Gionet