Intellectual disabilities raise the risk of death from COVID-19, study warns

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Individuals with intellectual disabilities deal with a number of challenges each day. Now, a recent study finds the coronavirus pandemic is posing another risk to their well-being. Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University find the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on these individuals, as well as their caregivers. Results show intellectual disability is the second leading risk factor for death from COVID, second only to old age.

“The chance of dying from COVID-19 are higher for those with intellectual disability than they are for people with congestive heart failure, kidney disease or lung disease,” lead study author Jonathan Gleason says in a university release. “That is a profound realization that we have not, as a healthcare community, fully appreciated until now.”

Researchers examined patient records from 64 million people in 547 healthcare organizations, between January 2019 and November 2020. The team conducted the study to help understand COVID’s impact on individuals with specific physical and mental health challenges during the pandemic. Some of those factors include complications due to  age, medical conditions, exposure to COVID-19, and disability.

COVID can compound existing health challenges

Those who had an intellectual disability were 2.5 times more likely to get COVID-19. They were also almost 2.7 times more likely to require hospitalization and 5.9 times more likely to die from COVID than others.

Researchers note that patients with intellectual disabilities have less ability to handle the strategies in place to offset infection. Social distancing and wearing a mask are just a couple of the safety measures these individuals struggle with. The study also notes that the intellectually disabled are more likely to have other health issues that can add onto the symptoms of COVID-19 and make the illness worse.

“We need to understand more about what is happening with these patients,” says Dr. Gleason. “I do believe these patients and their caregivers should be prioritized for vaccination and healthcare services. We should reflect on why we have failed this vulnerable population, and how we can better serve them during this health crisis, and into the future.”

“Even prior to the pandemic, individuals with intellectual disabilities have had poor health outcomes. We need to do much better.”

Researchers add it would be best if individuals with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers receive priority status when it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Second, federal and state healthcare regulatory offices should measure access, quality and safety in this population in order to track our ability to improve health outcomes for these patients. Finally, the United States should redesign the care model for individuals with intellectual disabilities,” Gleason concludes.

The study appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, Catalyst.