Serious complications from COVID-19 are most likely to develop in elderly people, as well as those who have weakened immune systems, or who are immunocompromised, says infectious disease specialist Alan Taege, M.D. from Cleveland Clinic in the U.S.
When people are immunocompromised, their body has a reduced ability to fight off and recover from infections. This could be because they have a certain chronic condition that affects the immune system, or because of certain medications they are taking. For example, some cancer treatments and medications used for autoimmune conditions weaken a person’s immune response, as do medicines that people take after having an organ transplant.
Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine that can prevent COVID-19, so we cannot prevent the disease, but there are many things you can do to minimize your risk such as social distancing, frequent handwashing and routinely disinfect surfaces in your home, such as doorknobs, faucet handles and cell phones.
It is especially important for older adults and those with underlying medical conditions to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place. It’s spread by droplets that come out the nose and mouth of someone who’s infected when they cough or sneeze, so you can get COVID-19 from being in close contact (within about 2 metres) with an infected person who has these symptoms. You might also be able to get it from touching a surface that’s been contaminated with infected droplets.
It is also important to maintain healthy habits, like eating well, getting enough sleep and managing your stress levels, in order to keep your immune system as strong as it can be.
Dr. Taege has answered some of the most common questions about protecting the most vulnerable populations:
Q: Who is most at-risk for getting severely sick from the coronavirus?
A: The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, so we don’t yet understand exactly how it impacts specific groups of high-risk people. But those who are thought to be most susceptible to serious complications of COVID-19 include people who are older than 65, or are taking medications that suppress the immune system or suffer from conditions such as cancer, hypertension. lung disease, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions that compromise the immune system.
Q: Why are people over the age of 65 more at risk?
A: Our immune system naturally becomes weaker as we age, which makes it harder for our bodies to fight off infections.
Q: Should someone who is immunocompromised still go to medical appointments?
A: Call your healthcare provider and ask. Some appointments might be able to be rescheduled, or handled by phone, or if available, virtually through a telemedicine visit or by phone. Healthcare facilities are taking special precautions to protect the health and safety of patients during this time.
Q: Should someone on immunosuppressing medications stop taking them?
A: Do not stop taking your medications without talking to your healthcare provider first. Just as there is risk associated with having a compromised immune system, there is also risk associated with stopping medication suddenly and potentially having disease flares. If you have questions or concerns, or if you become sick, talk with your doctor.
Q: In addition to the advice on hygiene, social distancing and all of the other precautions given to the general public, what extra steps could a vulnerable person take to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak in the community?
A: Consider the following:
Ask your healthcare provider if it’s possible to get an advance supply of your medications, in case there is an outbreak in your community and you need to stay home for more than a few weeks. You can also ask your healthcare provider or pharmacy if ordering medications online and having them shipped to your home is an option.
Have enough groceries and household supplies on-hand so that you could comfortably stay home for a few weeks if you had to. Many grocers offer online ordering and delivery, which could also help you avoid having to go out.
Talk to your doctor to make sure you are up to date on your recommended vaccinations, such as the pneumonia and flu shots, which can help prevent those serious illnesses. These will not protect you against COVID-19, but they will protect you from other infections that could require you to seek medical care.
Make a plan for who will take care of you if you do get sick.
If you have a chronic condition and live alone, ask family members, friends or neighbors to check on you regularly during an outbreak. Ask them to call or contact you through email or social media.
Q: How can someone help a loved one who is in the high-risk category?
A: You can start by checking in on your love one’s well-being frequently via phone, email or social media. You might also consider:
Offering to pick up groceries or prescriptions and drop them off at your loved one’s doorstep so they do not have to go out.
Learning what medications your loved one is taking, and helping them get extra medication and supplies, if possible.
If your loved one is in a hospital or long-term care facility, check ahead of time to see if they have restrictions on visitation. And never visit when you’re sick.