When Russell Rawlings attempted to get a COVID-19 test earlier this month after being exposed by one of his home health care aides, the process took him four days.
Rawlings, a prominent Sacramento disability rights activist, has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair. Typically, public transportation helps him get around, but once he was exposed to the virus, he said he couldn’t get a company to take him to a test site.
“Ultimately, I was given an ambulance ride to the testing site,” Rawlings explained. “It was a very jarring experience as you can imagine, being transferred by EMTs on a gurney and taken to a site where, honestly, there were not other people in similar situations. I feel like there were so many points of failure in communication, it just wasn’t respectful of my dignity at all.”
He said he also missed his testing window and had to wait for an hour on a gurney in the parking lot before he could be taken inside to be tested.
Rawlings’ struggles highlight how Sacramento County’s current COVID-19 system may not be fully equipped to test or treat people with disabilities.
“I think people don’t really understand the experience of disabled people,” he said. “There’s so little that happens ordinarily if one is not able bodied.”
Brenda Bongiorno, a spokeswoman with the county, said that there are 14 county-sponsored testing sites, and just one of them is drive-through only. The others, which are mostly located at various churches, community centers and health centers, are appointment-only and are open on specific days of the week, according to the county’s website.
“Currently, the sites are being assessed by the County for ADA accessibility. The assessments should be completed soon,” a statement from a county health department spokesperson said. “If there are areas of improvement, the County will work with each site on an appropriate action plan.”
But Rawlings said that testing isn’t the only pandemic-related change that has failed to keep people with disabilities in mind. When restaurants began to switch to outdoor dining, sidewalks and parking lots became eating spaces with very little room for mobility.
“There was almost no attention paid to what does it actually look like,” Rawlings said of outdoor dining. “And in some cases I saw whole sidewalks closed, and I’m thinking that puts people like myself in power chairs out in the street to try to navigate past those areas.”
People with disabilities are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that may put them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Despite that, COVID-19 testing for those home health aides who work closely with people with disabilities depends on specific agency policy. A report by Home Health Care News written early in the pandemic showed that home health aides were not getting tested as often as they should be.
California is currently experiencing a home health aide shortage in part because the risks of contracting COVID-19 are particularly high for this group of workers.
Evelyn Marshall, a home health care aide who works with Rawlings, said she was surprised at how few home health agencies were offering or asking aides to be tested.
“I have a home to come home to, and I have a family, but I’m an essential worker,” Marshall said. “It’s important, but it’s risky, because it doesn’t appear there are guidelines in place for the disabled to get testing.”
Though it would mean more income, she said she’s personally pulled back on clients she sees and is currently only visiting Rawlings to try to keep her exposure to a minimum.
“I feel for these caregivers having to go into multiple homes,” Marshall said. “I wouldn’t want to do that, because your risk of exposure just increases exponentially.”
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