1 in 5 People Could Have Underlying Health Conditions That Put Them at Risk for Severe COVID-19 Symptoms

Researchers are finding out more about which underlying health conditions can increase a person's risk of having a severe case of COVID-19, and a shocking number of people around the world are affected. A new study by the journal The Lancet Global Health estimates 22 percent of the world's population has at least one of the conditions that can increase their risk of having a severe case of the coronavirus, possibly involving hospitalization and putting their health at risk. The study comes with some suggestions for governments and healthcare workers in prioritizing care for certain types of patients.

An estimated 1.7 billion people have at least one of the underlying conditions that can make COVID-19 a severe illness for them. However, researchers pointed out that this does not mean all of those people are guaranteed to have a severe case if they are infected. They estimate that about 4 percent of the population — 349 million people — would require hospitalization if infected with the virus. Dr. Andrew Clark of The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine pointed out that this information will be quite useful in planning for the continued response to the pandemic.

"As countries move out of lockdown, governments are looking for ways to protect the most vulnerable from a virus that is still circulating," he said. "We hope our estimates will provide useful starting points for designing measures to protect those at increased risk of severe disease. This might involve advising people with underlying conditions to adopt social distancing measures appropriate to their level of risk, or prioritizing them for vaccination in the future."

The underlying health conditions that put a person at risk for a severe case of COVID-19 are not at all uncommon. They include cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. However, researchers pointed out that other risk factors can play a big role in the severity of COVID-19, including ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

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The researchers also warned against over-simplifying their data, potentially leading to some grave misinterpretations. For example, Dr. Rosalind Eggo said that the generalization that young people face a lower risk of a severe COVID-19 case does not take into account their various contacts with people at a higher risk.

"Our estimates suggest that age-based thresholds for shielding could play a role in reducing deaths and reducing the number of people who require hospital treatment, but the choice of threshold needs to be balanced against the proportion of people of working age affected, as well as the health and economic consequences that might be associated with long periods of isolation," she said.