Today disability advocates filed a federal civil rights complaint against Nebraska’s COVID-19 TestNebraska program. The complaint isn’t a lawsuit—it’s a formal charge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that the state is violating federal anti-discrimination laws. The OCR has been taking steps all across the country to stop state programs that left out people with disabilities in pandemic plans and programs. The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly disruptive for people with disabilities as Stacy Cervenka of Lincoln recently outlined for Bloomberg News.
Even though social distancing means Disability Rights Nebraska staff can’t physically visit the people we serve in the Regional Center, in group homes, in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, we haven’t been idle in quarantine. Several staff have been dedicated to interviewing people in these facilities from border to border over the last few months. What we’ve learned has been alarming to say the least. Here are just some of the stories of Nebraskans left behind by TestNebraska:
- One nursing home administrator described the early days of the pandemic when COVID-19 began to stalk the people living in the home. “I was begging for more test kits, but I would only get a handful. That meant I had to choose who to test. It was like playing God with people’s lives. Why did they leave us out of their plans?”
- Dea Henke lives in Lincoln and has a form of muscular dystrophy. After experiencing worrisome symptoms including fatigue, muscle aches, a sore throat and nausea, she used the TestNebraska website. It said that she should be tested, but she can’t currently drive independently to one of the mobile sites. “I can’t ask anyone to risk themselves to drive me there. My doctor said my only option is to wait and hope the symptoms don’t get worse. If they do, I will be taken to the hospital in an ambulance but until then there’s no options for me.”
- A guardian for an adult with age related cognitive disabilities knew the ward couldn’t use the TestNebraska website for themselves, so the guardian did the online questionnaire. The website indicated testing was necessary, but the nursing home informed the guardian they had no way to get the ward to the mobile testing site.
One of the most concerning aspects of TestNebraska’s inaccessibility is the amount of time Nebraskans have been waiting for improvements. Disability Rights Nebraska first began formally requesting a pandemic plan to include meeting the needs of Nebraskans with disabilities in March 2020. TestNebraska was formally unveiled and began testing people on May 4th. Since then, Governor Ricketts answered media questions about the drive-through testing with the statement, “What we needed to do is to continue to work on getting the system down for the regular customers, so to speak, if you want to think about it – the drive-up customers that the system was originally designed to serve.”
Nebraskans with disabilities are “regular customers,” Governor Ricketts. And they’re the ones most vulnerable to COVID-19. Let’s hope the complaint filed today makes that point clear once and for all.
Amy Miller is a staff attorney with Disability Rights Nebraska. She is part of the monitoring team interviewing people affected by COVID-19 and is immensely grateful for the chance to work with the organizations who signed onto the OCR complaint.