Supporting People at Risk of Getting Very Sick from COVID-19

Published May 4, 2022
See all editions of Covid in Focus here.

Over the past few months, many COVID-19 restrictions and mask requirements have been lifted. But people who are at risk of getting very sick may need to keep taking precautions to stay healthy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 if they:

  • Have certain disabilities or chronic health conditions
  • Are going through cancer treatment or taking medicine that affects their immune system
  • Are pregnant
  • Are age 65 or older

As a campus communicator, you can help create a supportive environment for everyone — including students, faculty, and staff who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.

Guidance for Campus Communicators

While some people are more than ready to move on from COVID-19 precautions, others may feel unsafe when they see fewer people wearing masks. Throughout the pandemic, people who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 may have heard the message that risking their health is the price to pay for everyone else to “get back to normal.” With this context, it’s easy to understand why some people may feel frustrated or left behind.

You can help students, faculty, and staff who are at risk of getting very sick feel supported on campus. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Listen to people who are at risk of getting very sick as you develop COVID-19 communication materials. If your campus has a disability organization, disability services office, or diversity, equity, and inclusion office, ask for their input.
  • Educate your campus community about the wide variety of reasons why people may need to keep taking steps to protect their health.
  • Highlight steps your campus is taking to protect people at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.
  • Provide clear action steps that everyone on campus can take to support people at risk of getting very sick. Sharing the tips below is a great way to start!
  • When you announce COVID-19 policy changes, note that many people may need to keep taking precautions to stay healthy.

Writing About Disability

As people learn more about any topic, it’s normal for language to grow and change. For example, when’s the last time you saw a news article about the novel coronavirus? That phrase was common when the pandemic began, but now we all call it “COVID-19.” The same goes for disabilities and chronic health conditions. The way we talk about disability is evolving as we learn more and social attitudes change. It’s helpful to keep this context in mind when you’re communicating about COVID-19 and people who are at risk of getting very sick.

Person-first language is often the go-to approach — think “people with disabilities.” But over the past few years, more people have started using identity-first language, like “disabled people.” And some disability communities have strong preferences. For example, many Deaf and autistic people prefer identity-first language.

As the way people think and talk about disability evolves, terms that were once accepted may become outdated and offensive. The most common example is the “R-word,” which is now considered a slur. But sometimes language choices aren’t so clear-cut. For example, some disability advocates have criticized euphemisms like “special needs,” which are still widely used.

Disability and identity are deeply personal, and people in your campus community may not agree about the most respectful words to use. When you can, it’s best to ask the experts — people who actually have disabilities and chronic health conditions — and use the language they prefer. Here are a few places to start:  

  • Check with your campus disability organization, disability services office, or diversity, equity, and inclusion office. They may already have best practices on writing about disability. Or they may be able to connect you with students who would be happy to share feedback.
  • If you’re writing about a specific disability, you can also look for resources created by and for people who have that disability. For example, if you’re creating materials for Deaf students, you could visit the National Association of the Deaf website to learn more.
  • For more guidance on writing about disability, check out this helpful page from Syracuse University’s Disability Cultural Center and this style guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.

Planning Accessible Events

During the pandemic, many campuses have introduced virtual programs and events. For students who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, virtual events can be a safer way to connect with the campus community — but virtual doesn’t automatically mean accessible. For guidance on creating accessible and inclusive virtual events, check out this toolkit from the nonprofit organization RespectAbility.

Another way to create an inclusive and supportive environment is to plan campus events that everyone can enjoy. First, you can minimize the risk of spreading COVID by taking a few simple steps:

  • Look for a space that has good ventilation (air flow) or plenty of room for people to spread out. Or gather outside when the weather is nice.
  • Limit the number of attendees or ask everyone to wear a mask.
  • Avoid activities that are more likely to spread COVID-19, like eating, singing, and shouting.

Then, consider how you can make your event more accessible for people who have disabilities and chronic health conditions. Check out this guide to accessible event planning created by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. It goes beyond the basics to break down physical, sensory, and cognitive accessibility challenges and solutions. See this resource from the University of Michigan for more detailed accessibility recommendations for campus events.

Tips to Share with Students, Faculty, and Staff

Share the following talking points to help your students, faculty, and staff stay healthy. You can copy and paste the content below into your own communication materials (like emails, campus news articles, and blog posts).

Support People Who Are at Risk of Getting Very Sick from COVID-19

[If your campus COVID-19 policies have recently changed, add that information here. For example: “At Example U, masks are no longer required on campus.” If your campus policies haven’t changed, you can say: “Over the past few months, COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted across the country.”] But many people in our campus community may need to keep taking precautions to stay healthy.

People are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 if they:

  • Have disabilities or chronic health conditions
  • Are going through cancer treatment or taking medicine that affects their immune system
  • Are pregnant
  • Are age 65 or older

Chances are you know someone who falls into one of those categories. Here are a few ways you can support people who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19:

  • Remember that some people may need to keep wearing a mask to stay healthy. So if you see someone wearing a mask on campus, don’t make them feel uncomfortable by asking why or making negative comments.
  • Offer to put your own mask on. If you’re in a public place (like the library or a coffee shop) and the people sitting near you are wearing masks, you can ask, “Would you like for me to wear a mask too?”
  • Wear a mask when you get together. If you’re going to meet with a friend who’s at risk of getting very sick, you can wear a mask to help them stay healthy.
  • Stay home when you’re sick. No one wants to get COVID-19 or the flu — or even a spring cold. When in doubt, stay home!

Social Media Content to Share with Students, Faculty, and Staff

You can post this content on your campus social media accounts.

Facebook and Instagram Post

People who have certain disabilities or chronic health conditions, pregnant people, and older adults are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. That means many people in our campus community may need to keep taking precautions to stay healthy. You can support them by:

[checkmark emoji] Staying home when you’re sick
[checkmark emoji] Talking about COVID safety boundaries
[checkmark emoji] Wearing a mask when you get together
[checkmark emoji] Keeping in touch when they can’t go out

Twitter Post

Some people who have disabilities or chronic health conditions may need to take extra COVID precautions. You can help them by:

[checkmark emoji] Staying home when you’re sick
[checkmark emoji] Talking about COVID safety boundaries
[checkmark emoji] Wearing a mask when you get together
[checkmark emoji] Keeping in touch when they can’t go out

Images for Sharing

Download and share these images on your social media channels or website: