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Study finds schizophrenia raises risk of COVID-19 death as those with mental illness wait for vaccine

Pfizer vaccine
Posted at 4:28 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 18:18:05-05

(WXYZ) — A study out of New York University has found that those suffering from schizophrenia are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those without the disorder.

The alarming findings come as those suffering from schizophrenia and other mental health conditions struggle to find their place in line for the scarce vaccine.

For months, Jenny Thomas has been trying to find a vaccine for her 24-year-old daughter Michaela. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia several years ago and today lives in Ingham County.

Symptoms of the disorder can include delusions, hallucinations and bizarre or unusual behavior. Because of her condition, Jenny says her daughter isn’t always able to take the necessary precautions to protect against COVID-19.

“We were afraid she would be an easy target for getting COVID,” Thomas said. “There’s no way to keep her protected without this vaccination.”

Even after the recent NYU findings, Michaela has been told she’ll have to keep waiting for a vaccine because of her young age.

Three-times greater risk

The study of more than 7,000 psychiatric patients found that those suffering from schizophrenia were at dramatically increased risk of death from COVID.

“Patients with schizophrenia were at about a three-fold risk of mortality from COVID compared to patients without psychiatric disease,” said Dr. Katlyn Nemani, who led the study.

Schizophrenia trailed only old age as the leading risk factor for death, surpassing even heart, lung and kidney disease, according to its authors.

“What we didn’t expect was the magnitude of this association after adjusting for all of these medical risk factors,” Nemani said.

The findings made Jenny Thomas push even harder to find a vaccine for her daughter.

“There’s no clear direction from anywhere in the public sector for getting patients, or getting our loved ones vaccinated,” Thomas said.

State hospitals return vaccine

At Michigan’s four state-run adult psychiatric hospitals, just the opposite is true. The hospitals have received plenty of vaccine for patients and staff and actually had to give some back

“There is a significant immunization hesitancy…in congregate care facilities among staff and among patients,” said Dr. George Mellos, Deputy Director of State Hospitals Administration.

As of today, just 270 of the state’s 702 adult psychiatric patients have been at least partially vaccinated.

Among hospital staff, 887 have received at least one shot out of more than 2,100.

Three patients and one staff member have died since the pandemic began.

“If you ask our people why aren’t you getting immunized? They say, I’m gonna wait and see what happens to the rest of them,” Mellos said.

For those with a mental illness, getting vaccinated is much easier if you’re in a congregate care setting, where COVID is more like to spread. Mental health advocates are trying to change that.

“They’re not in a congregate setting, it doesn’t mean that their risk is less than somebody who is,” said Marianne Huff, who leads the Mental Health Association in Michigan.

The association just sent a letter to Governor Whitmer, urging her to expand vaccine access to all who suffer from mental illness.

Are you eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Detroit? Click here to learn more.
At least one city, Detroit, just expanded its vaccination criteria to include those who suffer from intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as mental illness. It’s good news if you live there. But for those who don’t, like Michaela, the wait continues.

“Folks with mental illness,” Thomas said, “they’re the measuring stick of whether or not we have a system that’s actually working.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.