Coronavirus: Who Is Most Vulnerable to Severe Illness?

March 19, 2020 - Katie McCallum

By now, you've probably heard that the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will continue to be among us for some time.

You've probably also heard that some people are at higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19, including:

  • People over the age of 65
  • Those with underlying chronic health conditions


As you age, your immune system weakens, making it much harder for you to fight infections. This is what makes the elderly more vulnerable to experiencing serious complications of COVID-19, including pneumonia and even death.

But which chronic health conditions put a person at higher risk, and what extra steps should someone who's at high risk of developing COVID-19 take?

Chronic conditions that may make you more vulnerable to severe illness

Anyone can can get sick from the new coronavirus, but some people are more prone to developing serious symptoms and complications while sick.

The chronic health conditions that put a person at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19 include:

  • Advanced heart conditions
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • Obesity
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

In addition to chronic health conditions, people who are taking immunosuppressants — medications that reduce the strength of the immune system in order to treat an illness or disorder — or who are immunocompromised are also higher risk.

This includes people who:

  • Are undergoing certain cancer treatments or have certain cancers
  • Have had an organ transplant or bone marrow transplant
  • Have poorly-controlled HIV or AIDS
  • Are taking high doses of corticosteroids or other immunosupressant medications


Lastly, other groups of people may be at a higher risk, too, including:

  • Women who are pregnant or breast feeding
  • People with moderate-to-severe asthma or high blood pressure
  • Racial and ethnic minority groups
  • Individuals who are homeless or have disabilities

How to protect yourself if you're at higher risk

If you're over the age of 65 or have one of the chronic conditions listed above, it's very important that you take steps to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following:

  • Stay at home as much as possible. You should also avoid any nonessential travel. Consider having food and supplies brought to your house using family, social or commercial networks.

  • Take everyday precautions. Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, disinfect frequently touched surfaces and practice social distancing.

  • If you do go out, keep six feet of space between yourself and others. Avoid crowds, limit close contact, wash your hands often and limit contact with frequently touched surfaces as much as possible.

  • Stock up on supplies. Make sure you have plenty of food, household items and over-the-counter medications in case you need to stay at home for an extended period of time.

  • Work with your doctor to refill prescriptions. Ask your doctor if it's possible to get extra medication in case you need to stay home for an extended period of time.

  • Monitor for symptoms. If you feel like you're developing a cough, fever and shortness of breath, call your doctor or use telemedicine.

  • Seek medical attention immediately if you develop severe symptoms. Severe symptoms include (but are not limited to): difficulty breathing, persistent chest pain, bluish lips or face and new confusion or the ability to wake up. If you're nervous to go to an emergency room during the pandemic, know that ERs are taking every precaution to keep you safe.


Concerned you may have COVID-19?

  • If you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, you can speak to a Virtual Urgent Care provider 24/7. The provider will be able to help you determine if testing is needed and advise you on what to do next.


This article was updated on June 22, 2020 to reflect the current state of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

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