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Millions in U.S. at Risk of Major COVID-19 Illness

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March 17, 2020 -- More than 100 million Americans are at higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation report.

The report found that 105.5 million people in the U.S. are at high risk of serious illness if infected. That number consists of 29.2 million adults under the age of 60 who have another medical condition, and 76.3 million adults at least 60 and older.

One group particularly at risk is the 1.3 million people living in nursing homes.

"With 4 out of every 10 people in the U.S. at higher risk of serious illness if they are infected with coronavirus, these estimates confirm the need to take unprecedented efforts to minimize the spread," said Wyatt Koma, a researcher with the foundation who worked on the report.

Overall, Most Infected Will Recover Quickly

According to the World Health Organization, most people who become infected won't have symptoms or will recover quickly without needing treatment. But 41% of U.S. adults (105.5 million out of 258 million in 2018) fall into the groups at higher risk of serious illness if they are infected by the new coronavirus. Koma and colleagues used data from the nationally representative 2018 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and calculated the numbers at risk by state and nationwide.

The researchers defined "high-risk," using the latest information from the CDC, as adults ages 60 and older, along with younger adults between ages 18 and 59 who have cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or diabetes. The authors said they could not factor in high blood pressure because that wasn’t tracked by the survey.

According to the American Heart Association, about 1 in 3 U.S. adults have high blood pressure.

"If we had included hypertension, it is likely the number of younger adults at higher risk of illness if they're infected with coronavirus would have increased," Koma said.

"Also, with this data source, we were unable to account for people living in institutional settings, such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or prisons," he said. "Had we been able to incorporate the institutional population, the number of under-60 individuals at risk of serious illness, if infected, would have also been higher."

The risk by state, according to the report, varies widely: from 31% in Washington, D.C., to 51% in West Virginia.

"In Washington state, California, and New York, some of the states hardest hit by COVID-19 thus far, the share of adults at high risk is 40%, 37%, and 40%, respectively," the authors write.

Koma said West Virginia's risk is high mainly because of the larger share of the younger adult population that has a serious health condition.

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