Study finds higher COVID death rate for Californians with disabilities and in skilled nursing facilities

January 29, 2021

In a December study about the impact of COVID-19 in California for people with disabilities, researchers found that risk of COVID infection was linked to types of housing and the number of residents in group settings, and risk of death from COVID was highest in facilities with 24-hour skilled nursing care.

Overall, those receiving any disability services in the state had a case fatality rate of 5.5 percent, compared with a 1.9 percent COVID fatality rate in Californians not receiving disability services and an estimated 1.7 percent death rate from COVID infection nationally.

A study from Drexel University estimates that 14 percent of adults with autism live in supervised settings. Concerns over health risks for people with autism due to COVID prompted disability groups, including Autism Speaks, to call for the prioritization of people with autism and other developmental conditions to receive priority access to COVID vaccinations recently authorized for emergency use by the FDA.

“This report is a small window into what is clearly a disproportionate impact of this virus on people with disabilities, who are more likely to live in skilled nursing and group facilities as adults,” said Stuart Spielman, senior vice president of advocacy for Autism Speaks. “In addition to the risks of group living settings, autistic people are more likely to have other health conditions that may put them at greater risk for severe illness or death from COVID. Vaccination priority is one way that we can better protect the health and safety of autistic people and those who care for them.”

Previous research has found that adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have many of the medical conditions associated with more severe COVID outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer.

“In addition to environmental risks, we need to better understand hospitalization rates and risk for death for autistic adults across age ranges to better prioritize COVID vaccine distribution,” said Thomas W. Frazier, Ph.D., chief science officer at Autism Speaks. “Where the risks increase at age 55 and 70 in the general population, we don’t know if those ages are the cutoff for people with autism. If these risks are more significant for people with autism at younger ages, that information is critical to public health policy.”

CDC guidance for people with developmental and behavioral disorders notes that in addition to living situation, some people with developmental conditions like autism also may have challenges understanding and practicing public health guidance and communicating when they have symptoms. Some may also have extreme difficulties with things like communications and compliance, in the event of hospitalization.

Read tips from child life specialist Angelos Nunez on preparing for inpatient hospitalization and find COVID-19 resources for the autism community at autismspeaks.org/coronavirus.

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You can also reach the Autism Response Team by phone or email: 888-288-4762, en Espanol 888-772-7050, or help@autismspeaks.org.