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1 in 4 Workers at Higher Risk for Severe Case of COVID-19

10 million vulnerable Americans 65 and older are still working, study finds

A woman gets her temperature checked while wearing a mask

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En español | Nearly a quarter of adult U.S. workers are at higher risk for developing serious illness if they are infected with the coronavirus, due to their age or underlying health conditions, according to a new analysis of federal health data by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF —en inglés—).

The researchers estimate that 37.7 million workers — about 24 percent of the adult labor force — are particularly vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

That includes 10 million people ages 65 and over and 27.7 million younger adults with conditions identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as risk factors for COVID-19, including diabetes, heart disease, moderate to severe asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), severe obesity, and compromised immune systems due to cancer treatment.

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Another 12 million at-risk adults who do not work, more than half of them 65-plus, are vulnerable to indirect exposure because they live with someone who works outside the home, the study found.

The research highlights challenges to workplace safety as states ease stay-at-home restrictions, more businesses move toward reopening and more workers return to job sites.

"As an employer, I know that employers are largely on their own to develop policies to reopen safely,” says Drew Altman, KFF's president and CEO. “These data suggest employers should take into account the higher risk some workers will face, allowing them to work at home where possible, to be tested and to minimize their risks if they return to work."

'Creative approaches’ to work needed

The study utilizes 2018 data, the most recent available, from the CDC's National Health Interview Survey to assess how many adult workers are at elevated risk for serious cases of COVID-19 if they contract the coronavirus.

The survey collects income and household information as well as health data, which KFF says allowed researchers to analyze how workers’ economic circumstances might intersect with coronavirus concerns. For example:

  • Large majorities of both groups studied — 61 percent of those 65 and up and 86 percent of younger workers with underlying conditions — work full time.
  • The median annual income is $37,000 for the older workers and $40,000 for the younger cohort.
  • A quarter of the older group earns less than $17,300 a year, and a quarter of the under-65 group makes less than $21,100.

"They have substantial connection to work and may face economic difficulties remaining absent from their jobs even if safety is a question,” the report says. Given those pressures, employers and workers, and governments regulating restarted economic activity, “may need to consider flexible and creative approaches to balance safety and business needs."

Rachel Garfield, codirector of KFF's Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured, and a coauthor of the report, says those approaches could include:

  • Providing workers with health screenings and personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Adapting some jobs to accommodate telework
  • Changing how employees interact with customers and clients
  • Changing how they interact with each other (for example, by altering shifts or reducing access to shared spaces)
  • Providing transportation options for those who use public transit

"Obviously not all options are available to all businesses, and not all risk can be eliminated,” Garfield says, “which poses challenges to all workers and particularly those who face underlying health risks."

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