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Sarah McSweeney was like any neighbor in Oregon City, Oregon, trying to make it through the pandemic in 2020. She was bright, full of dreams, enjoyed visiting the mall and having her hair done, and loved listening to Kenny Chesney. Mostly, she loved to laugh and make others smile when she would stick out her tongue while taking pictures.  

What also made Sarah unique, like millions of other Americans, was her disability. Sarah had quadriplegia and cerebral palsy which prevented her from walking and speaking. She communicated by making sounds and gestures. Sarah used these expressions to communicate clearly to caregivers during these deadly times of COVID-19 that should she be taken to the hospital, medical professionals need to use every tool at their disposal to keep her alive.  

But did intersectional medical discrimination end up taking her life anyway?  

Discrimination in the health care industry against Black and Brown communities, differently-abled individuals, and older adults is as much a present-day problem as it is a historical fact. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing biases and highlighted insufficient practices associated with crisis standards of medical care. These standards are developed by states and hospitals in order to make decisions about allocating scarce medical resources. Further, these plans are essential to organizing treatment and distributing resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Sarah, who entered hospital care with symptoms that might have been associated with COVID-19, died a few weeks later from aspiration pneumonia, a condition that is serious but entirely treatable and unrelated to COVID-19.  

Her caregivers noted from the beginning, and testified later, that it seemed as if doctors and other medical professionals were determined to limit and circumvent quality care. Over the course of two and a half weeks, doctors and social workers had questioned why this disabled woman had medical instructions for full care to keep her alive, instead of a Do Not Resuscitate order which allows medical professionals to simply move on from your needs.  

That is why the national Lawyers’ Committee has released, “Examining How Crisis Standards of Care May Lead to Intersectional Medical Discrimination Against COVID-19 Patients.”  

The report explores the potential negative biases and inaccurate assumptions in crisis standards of care. Amid limited health resources, crisis standards are not created equally and can perpetuate widespread medical discrimination or misinformation during a global crisis.   

COVID-19 has exposed the widespread importance of protecting intersectional communities of color in healthcare,” said Pilar Whitaker, counsel in the Economic Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Equitable care and effective medical training must be implemented going forward to encourage benevolent health practices across the nation.”   

Crisis standards of care must set forth the protection of patients’ civil rights as a guiding principle to save more lives and safeguard patients from harm. Health care workers who exclude individuals from treatment or give lower priority based on disability or age when individuals are likely to survive treatment violate anti-discrimination laws.    

Communities that are likely to survive hospitalization for COVID-19 should not be disqualified from receiving treatment based on concerns about their age, disabilities, life expectancy, quality of life, or resources they may require for treatment. In addition to the national Lawyers’ Committee’s Economic Justice Project, a coalition of organizations have contributed to this report.   

Read the report here.   

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Contact: Natasha Mundkur[email protected], c. (202) 780-4506