Why the Coronavirus or COVID-19 Could Be Especially Dangerous for People with Disabilities

Coronavirus image that features germ cells

The Elderly and Individuals with Pre-Existing Conditions Are Most At-Risk

COVID-19, or as it is commonly called, the Coronavirus, is dominating the news. The implications are far-reaching, from economic to political to personal, and it’s leaving many to wonder how best to protect themselves and others from a sickness that seems impossible to avoid.

We asked our Facebook and Twitter followers: how do you feel about the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

48.4% said they were concerned

51.6% said they weren’t worried

While a significant percentage of wheelchair users, caregivers and disability allies responded that they were not concerned about the coronavirus, at BraunAbility, our customer is our number one concern, and we’re sharing this article to help protect our customers and others from this epidemic.

The advice to restrict the spread is the same given every year during flu season, but what many people don’t realize is that their actions can put others – often those with weakened immune systems – in danger of contracting the Coronavirus.

Skip to "Common Sense Ways for Wheelchair Users to Reduce the Spread of Coronavirus"

Skip to "I Provide Care for Someone Who is Infected. What Should I Do?" 

What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is often referred to, is a strand of virus that has not previously been identified and is not the same as other coronavirus strands, which cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses.

COVID-19 spreads between people and is highly contagious. It is thought to spread from respiratory droplets (which may be expelled with a cough or a sneeze) and can live on surfaces, though the main form of transmission seems to come from person-to-person contact.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

Herd Immunity – What Is It and Will It Work?

Herd immunity is a term often used when talking about vaccinations. In a given population, if enough members of that population are immune to a disease, that disease is less likely to spread through the remaining members. In order for herd immunity to work, a large number of the population needs to be vaccinated. That means everyone who can, should, because there are members of the community who can’t be vaccinated. Very young children, the elderly, people with disabilities (especially those with impaired respiratory function), and others with underlying conditions that impair the immune system – like cancer – are the most at-risk population for contracting coronavirus and other transmittable diseases.

Herd immunity only works for contagious diseases. Things like cancer can’t be contained by using the herd immunity method, but something like measles or the coronavirus can.

Is There a Vaccine for Coronavirus?

At the time of writing, there is not a vaccine for this strand of coronavirus. So what does this have to do with herd immunity? Well, taking preventative measures in order to slow the spread of the disease is the next best way to protect yourself and other members of the most susceptible population. 

Why Are People With Disabilities Particularly At-Risk for Coronavirus?

While having a disability does not immediately mean you are more at-risk than others, the nature of your disability could impact your ability to fight off an infection by coronavirus, especially if your condition limits your respiratory function.

Many people with chronic health conditions or individuals with physical disabilities may not be able to follow recommended procedures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. For example, complete isolation might be impossible for someone with a disability because they need the assistance that comes from in-home aides or caregivers. If the outbreak becomes very severe in an area, those services may be disrupted as aides become ill themselves.

Others may not have an accessible form of transportation and will need to rely on transit services in order to continue to get groceries or medications.

Preventative Measures for Coronavirus

The Center for Disease Control has been working with news outlets to share how best to protect yourself from coronavirus.

To Protect Yourself:

1. Wash Your Hands and / or Assistive Equipment

Your hands are a tool to help you interact with the world, but now that you know the extent of the risk, you also understand why it is important to wash your hands regularly, especially after being in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If you use a mobility aid like a wheelchair, you’ll also want to disinfect the joystick or the areas of the frame that are most touched by you or others throughout the day. Even if you don’t have use of your hands and hand-to-hand contact is unlikely, be sure to disinfect any part of your wheelchair of other piece of equipment that comes into regular contact with others.

2.  Avoid Close Contact wth Others

Keep an eye on the CDC website to see how the virus is spreading. If you know your community is affected, avoid contact with other people by choosing to work from home, delay social events until after the epidemic lessens in force and limit your travel. If you have aides who help you in your home, monitor them for signs of sickness and ask that they help you disinfect areas of your home before they leave their shift.

To Protect Others If Sick:

1. Stay Home

If you become infected, do not leave your home unless it is to receive medical care. What to do if you have COVID-19.

2. Cover Coughs and Sneezes

Cover your face with a tissue or prevent the spray of bodily fluids by coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow to avoid spreading the virus. Be sure to throw used tissues in the trash and to immediately wash your hands after handling. If you are unable to cover your cough or sneeze due to quadriplegia or other physical limitations, limit your time outside of your home and do not invite others into your home environment until you have recovered.

3. Wear a Facemask

If you are sick, you should wear a facemask when you are around others. If you are not sick, but you provide care for someone who is, you should wear a facemask during your interactions with this person.

4. Clean and Disinfect DAILY

To protect others, it’s important to clean and disinfect surfaces daily. This could be anything from doorknobs and drawer pulls to keyboards and light switches. It’s a good idea to increase the frequency with which you wash your pillowcase as well. Don’t forget to also disinfect your mobility aids. Canes, walkers, wheelchairs – even your accessible vehicle key fob and steering wheel. You will want to ensure your environment is as clean as possible to protect others from encountering the virus.

Common Sense Ways for Wheelchair Users to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus

Wheelchair users or people who use mobility aids should take the necessary precautions as the general population to reduce the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus. However, it will be necessary to also consider disinfecting their mobility aids or wheelchair to keep it free of germs.

  • Wipe down your joystick on your power wheelchair or the handgrips or frame of your manual wheelchair nearly as often as you are washing your hands.
  • Do not rely on just hand sanitizer as your method of disinfecting your hands or surface areas. You should always first use soap and water and then disinfect afterward. Many people in wheelchairs may skip handwashing if the sink that is available is not accessible. In this case, always use hand sanitizer until an accessible sink is found.
  • Frequently clean your keyfob for your handicap vehicle.
  • Frequently clean your door opening and ramp deploy buttons in your accessible vehicle.
  • Thoroughly clean any and all hand controls in your vehicle. 
  • If you use manual tie-down systems in your handicap van, clean the hooks and straps to the best of your ability.

If you have any concerns around your wheelchair accessible vehicle, or how to rent or purchase a handicap vehicle during this time, please contact your local BraunAbility dealer for advice and resources.

I Provide Care for Someone Who is Infected. What Should I Do?

As a professional aide or a close contact of someone with a disability who has contracted coronavirus or COVID-19, it can be intimidating to continue to provide care. However, with proper precautions, you can avoid contracting the coronavirus.

  • Make sure you understand and can help the patient follow their doctor’s instructions regarding medication, bedrest, and care. Like always, provide support when getting groceries, prescriptions and other personal needs.
  • Monitor your patient’s symptoms and call their primary healthcare provider if these symptoms worsen. The provider may recommend that the patient be transferred to the hospital, but will likely have additional instructions for how best to admit the patient to reduce risk of infection to others in the hospital.
  • If possible, use a separate bathroom and/or bedroom than the person you provide care for during this time.
  • Do not allow additional visitors into the home during this time.
  • Contact with pets and other animals is not advised. While there have not been reports that pets can spread the virus to others, it is still considered best-practice to avoid contact between an animal and a sick individual. If your patient is not able to distance themselves from animals – for example, if they have a therapy animal or assistance animal – instruct them to wash their hands before and after interacting with their animal and ensure they wear a facemask.
  • Be diligent about washing your hands, instructing the person you provide care for to wash their own hands and frequently disinfect high-traffic areas of the home and their mobility aids.

It is up to employers, teachers, health care providers and friends and family to offer more flexible schedules and arrangements for people with disabilities in light of the coronavirus spread for the time-being. As someone with a disability or someone who provides care for someone with a disability, take extra precautions to help protect yourselves and others. Ultimately, you can help a lot by being aware and sensitive to the risks faced by people with chronic illnesses or disabilities during an outbreak such as COVID-19. 

BraunAbility is not a medical expert. The information contained in this article is meant to inform you and your family on the CDC's recommended best practices. If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your local healthcare provider.

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