Understanding COVID-19 and Palliative Care

COVID-19 is a new disease and there is limited information on the risk factors. Based on current information and expertise, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. This is why palliative care helps patients who have the virus, including the majority who will survive the disease.

According to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in ten adults (41%) in the U.S. (105.5 million people) have a higher risk of developing serious illness if they are infected with coronavirus.

According to the CDC, people at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • Other high-risk conditions could include:
    • People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
    • People who have serious heart conditions
    • People who are immunocompromised including those undergoing cancer treatment
    • People of any age with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] >40) or certain underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, such as those with diabetes, renal failure, or liver disease might also be at risk
  • People who are pregnant should be monitored since they are known to be at risk with severe viral illness, however, to date data on COVID-19 has not shown increased risk

Many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised. These include cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications.

How Palliative Care Treats COVID-19

Palliative care teams know only too well how challenging it is for patients and families to face uncertain outcomes due to serious illness. Palliative care specializes in treating the symptoms and stress of serious illness. The skills that palliative care teams use every day at the bedside–symptom management, listening, curiosity about what people are feeling, compassionate support for understanding patient priorities, and a calm presence–are the same skills that are needed for treating patients with COVID-19.

The expertise of palliative care specialists in symptom management and communication is therefore essential to reducing suffering of all patients with COVID-19.

Patient/Caregiver Resources

For more resources, visit our COVID-19 Tips and Tools page.

Content sources:  National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)Division of Viral Diseases, Accessed March 29, 2020; Center to Advance Palliative Care, March 31, 2020