COVID-19: Advice for higher risk people

Information for people considered at higher risk of the effects of COVID-19 and their whānau.

Last updated: 22 May 2020

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What you and your whānau need to know to stay safe and healthy

COVID-19 is a new illness that can affect your lungs and airways. It’s caused by a type of coronavirus. Older people and people with some existing health conditions have a higher risk of more severe symptoms if they contract COVID-19. If this applies to you, you may be wondering whether your whānau and other people in your household need to take extra precautions to keep you and your household safe.

As we transition through alert levels, some of the people in your household might be moving around more than they have been, including returning to work. Those who are vulnerable like older people might also decide to leave the house for activities they were advised to not do previously, including regular activities to help stay well, like exercising and getting groceries.


People at risk of severe illness from COVID-19

These guidelines are intended to encourage people currently considered more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 than the general population to:

  • give thought to protecting yourself and your wider whānau and keeping yourself well
  • think about how everyday activities such as going to work can be done safely.

These guidelines are not hard and fast rules and will be updated from time to time when further evidence becomes available.

At Alert Level 2 there are fewer cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, and therefore the chance of contracting the illness is lower. We still expect to see some new cases, so it is still important to keep up with precautions such as hand-washing and distancing and keep yourself well.

Read more advice on how COVID-19 is spread and the precautions everyone can take.

If you are working and considered at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, talk with your employer about doing a risk assessment in your workplace to look at what the risk is for you and how it can be reduced. If you can’t safely work at your workplace, and you aren’t able work from home, you will need to agree with your employer what your leave from work and pay arrangements will be.

You can find further information on the Employment New Zealand website: COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme.

People with medical conditions and compromised immunity

The main reason for COVID-19 becoming a severe illness is the presence of underlying medical conditions, especially if these conditions are not well controlled.

Relevant medical conditions include:

  • chronic lung disease such as cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive respiratory disease and emphysema, severe asthma that needs multiple medications and medical care
  • serious heart conditions such as congestive heart failure
  • hypertension that isn’t well controlled
  • diabetes that isn’t well controlled
  • chronic kidney disease
  • liver disease.

Conditions and treatments that weaken the immune system include:

  • having chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • bone marrow or organ transplantation
  • some blood cancers
  • immune deficiencies including HIV infection
  • immunity weakening medications such as high-dose corticosteroids and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs that treat inflammatory forms of arthritis.

Talk with your GP or other health service provider about whether your medical condition means you are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and how to best manage your condition.

You should continue to access care for your medical condition. Health services such as your GP and hospitals have measures in place to keep both you and staff safe.

Older people

Older people, in particular those who have underlying medical conditions, are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In general risk increases with age but is particularly an issue for people over the age of 70.

Māori and Pacific populations are likely to experience the age-related risk earlier than the age of 70, partly because chronic health conditions are also often experienced at an earlier age.

People in aged care facilities

Residents of aged care facilities are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to their age and frailty. Residents are also more likely to have underlying health conditions. Aged care facilities have been shown to be susceptible to rapid transmission of COVID-19 with infections occurring in residents and staff.

Everyone has a part to play to protect residents of aged care facilities including residents, family, friends and staff.

Other factors contributing to risk

Ethnicity

Overseas experience has shown a disproportionate impact from COVID-19 on ethnic minorities.

Māori, Pacific and some other ethnic minorities in New Zealand are at risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19, particularly where there exists:

  • a higher rate of chronic health conditions
  • crowded housing
  • difficulty accessing health care (eg due to distance from care, difficulties with transport or childcare, or lack of suitable services).

Smoking

People with a history of smoking are more likely to have severe symptoms of COVID-19 and be admitted to ICU.

There are options available to help you stop smoking. You can discuss these with your GP or contact Quitline on 0800 778 778.

More information on how to stop smoking

Obesity

There is some indication you are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, as you are of other conditions such as diabetes, if you have a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher.

More information on measuring weight

Pregnancy

Pregnant women in their third trimester should take extra precautions and keep themselves well at a time when the growing baby means higher oxygen demands on the mother.

If you are in your third trimester and work in an area where there is high risk of exposure to COVID-19, for example some healthcare settings, you should discuss and agree with your employer a risk assessment and options for working differently if needed.

Leave from work arrangements may be important to ensure you remain eligible for Paid Parental Leave.

Find out more about parental leave


Protecting yourself

There are simple steps you and your whānau can take to protect yourselves, such as maintaining good hygiene and cleaning practices.

Following basic hygiene measures at home and at work is the best defence against COVID-19. 

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If you get support from a health care worker who interacts with people who are suspected, probable, or confirmed COVID-19 cases, they should follow the guidance provided to them by their employer on how to keep safe at work. This includes using personal protective equipment  (PPE).

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