Your Risk of Severe COVID-19 Illness Based on the Latest CDC Update

Published August 17th, 2020 by Dr. Audrey Kostrzewa, PharmD, MPH, BCPS
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated and expanded their list of those at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness in late June. 

This means a higher percentage of the U.S. population falls into a higher risk category. And, the more risk factors you have, the higher your risk

It’s important to understand what risk factors are, why they are important, where they come from, and what you can do to protect yourself and others.

What “Risk” Is and Why Does It Matter?  

In general terms, risk is the probability of something bad happening. There are not a lot of guarantees in life; you can think about almost anything in terms of probability – and lots of things (factors) can increase or decrease probability (or risk) of an outcome. 

Risk in the medical world describes the likelihood of someone getting a disease, or having a medical outcome (e.g., heart attack). “Risk factors” are characteristics that can increase someone’s risk of that outcome. 

Generally, the more of them you have, the higher your risk. And risk factors are not the same for every outcome. Some risk factors can’t be changed by an individual (e.g., age, race), while others can be changed (e.g., smoking status, weight). 

Healthcare professionals can look at a patient’s risk factors to help make prevention or treatment decisions. There are always pros and cons in medical decision making – it’s all about probability!

For COVID-19, risk factors matter because they tell us who may get a more severe illness if they get the virus. More severe illness means a higher probability of hospitalization, intensive care unit stays, and even death.

Knowing about risk factors can help you and your family take better precautions, understand the significance of certain actions, and modify risk factors that you may have some control over to lower your risk!  

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What “Risk” Is NOT

Risk is NOT a guarantee. Earlier we talked about risk as probability, meaning the outcome can either happen or not. Having a risk factor (or multiple) does not guarantee that you will have the outcome

And, perhaps more importantly when discussing COVID-19, NOT having a risk factor does not guarantee that you will not have the outcome. Unfortunately, many individuals think and act as if the disease would not affect them because they did not fall into certain risk categories. 

Not only is that not true (e.g., many young people have also died from COVID-19), but that assumption is dangerous. It puts yourself, your loved ones, and your community at risk because COVID-19 is a communicable disease – anyone can spread it to anyone, regardless of risk factors.

Where Do Risk Factors Come From? 

You probably have heard, even early on during the pandemic, about individuals at higher risk such as older adults and those with chronic lung conditions. 

The more we learn about the disease and how the virus is acting in larger populations, the better our understanding is of those who are truly at a higher risk. More cases and data allow us to be more accurate. 

That is what happened with the CDC update in late June – they responded to evidence. The two main changes that came out of this update are:

  1. Age; and  
  2. Underlying conditions


No more numbers! Data shows that risk increases steadily in adults with increasing age. So, while the general statement of older adults are at higher risk is still true, the CDC removed the number of “65” and older to better reflect trends being seen among all adults. 

Underlying conditions

There is a new, updated, and expanded list of underlying medical conditions with increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness. This list gets updated often as new information becomes available. 

It is divided into two categories: 1) known increased risk and 2) possible increased risk, based on the level of evidence available. The CDC website includes a link to the evidence, detailed recommendations for the public, and disease-specific recommendations. 

Here is the latest list (as of the end of July) of known increased risk conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Immunocompromised (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher)
  • Serious heart conditions (heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies)
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus

What Can You Do If You or A Loved One Is High Risk?

Knowledge is power. Knowing if you or a loved one has one or multiple high-risk factors is the first step. 

If you know, then you can actually do something about it! Remember I said that some risk factors can be changed and some can’t. 

Here are some practical tips for things you CAN do to help lower your risk.

  1. Optimize care – Even if you can’t change the fact that you have a medical condition like COPD or diabetes, you can work with your healthcare provider to optimize your control of the disease. Staying on top of medications and vaccinations is important. Also, reach out with questions and don’t delay care, especially for urgent concerns!
  2. Build Your Defenses – Our bodies’ natural defenses are so important in our ability to bounce back from any infectious disease, so being at your best can only help. Exercising and eating right is a good start to boosting your bodies’ defenses. Talk with your healthcare provider if you want more details or individualized recommendations.
  3. Be Diligent About Safe Pandemic Practices – With high-risk factors, it is especially important to be diligent about COVID-19 best practices such as social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands often, etc. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself or be an advocate for others if you need to.  

Now that you know about the high-risk categories, go learn more about the ones that affect you and your family. Remember, risk factors are all about probability, so do what you can to get the numbers in your favor. Talk with your healthcare provider for individual questions and more information.  

Reference List

CDC updates, expands list of people at risk of severe COVID-19 illness. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Published June 25, 2020. Accessed July 31, 2020.

People Who Are at Increased Risk for Severe Illness. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 25, 2020. Accessed July 31, 2020. 

Assessing Risk Factors for Severe COVID-19 Illness. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 25, 2020. Accessed July 31, 2020.

People with Certain Medical Conditions. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated July 30, 2020. Accessed July 31, 2020. 

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Published August 17th, 2020 by Dr. Audrey Kostrzewa, PharmD, MPH, BCPS
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

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