With the COVID vaccine in short supply, there’s broad agreement that prioritizing people most vulnerable to the virus is the right thing to do and an important strategy to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. So why aren’t people with serious mental illness being moved to the front of the line? That needs to change now. It won’t be easy, but hundreds of health-care providers have been helping people with serious mental illness throughout the pandemic, visiting them in their homes and communities. We stand ready to help.
New Yorkers suffering from schizophrenia, depression and other serious mental conditions check most of the boxes of COVID vulnerability. They are more likely than the general population to be poor; they are more likely to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses; and they are less likely to have access to primary care. Studies show that over 16% of patients with a serious mental illness have diabetes, while over 9% percent suffer from hypertension and close to 10% from dyslipidemia. We also know that the racial groups hit hardest by the pandemic, Blacks and Hispanics, are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to receive care for a serious mental illness.
All of which means they are more likely to die if they get COVID. A recent study from NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine found that COVID patients suffering from schizophrenia were almost three times more likely to die of the virus than those without the psychological disorder. That’s alarming, but not surprising. We already know that people living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than their peers.
Beyond these statistics, we know that being told to physically isolate from others is particularly difficult for people with serious mental illness because they rely on help from others. Dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one, or a job, is also harder for people dealing with their own complex mental health issues. This suffering has been felt by countless spouses, children and other friends and family members as well. Given all their challenges, it is not surprising that people with serious mental illness disproportionately rely on hospitals for their care. Prioritizing this group for vaccination will ease the burden on our hospitals, and make it less likely that they will be overwhelmed by the current wave of the pandemic. Our political leaders have spent considerable time and energy figuring out how to prioritize people for vaccination. One unintended consequence is that the categories can be confusing, especially for the vulnerable people they are designed to help. Some pre-existing conditions make you eligible for the vaccine, and others don’t. Our health-care system is fragmented and difficult to navigate. Let’s make it simple, and offer the vaccine to anyone with a serious mental illness. Doing so will help some of the most vulnerable in our city, and reduce the burden on hospitals at a critical time in our fight against COVID.