Covid-19 and Frailty

During this pandemic, older people living with frailty and long-term conditions will continue to experience episodes of ill-health, falls or other unforeseen events. While COVID-19 will be the main concern for the healthcare system as a whole, much of the care that community and social care teams provide will be the routine care that they always provided. Efforts will be made to provide more care at home or in community settings, keeping older people out of hospital until it becomes necessary.

A key reason for this is that frailty is a strong predictor of adverse outcomes for older people hospitalised because of COVID-19 infection. A study of an acute hospital ward in Greater Manchester has shown how risk of death from COVID-19 increases with age, frailty and comorbidity. The study which you can access here examined the outcomes of 215 patients with COVID according to age group and levels of frailty, 86 of which sadly died. Tragically, 16% of the patients who were younger than 65 years died, 37% of the patients aged 65 to 75 years died: 53% of the patients aged 75 to 85 years died , and 62% of the patients aged above 85 years died. Frailty was measured using the Rockwood Clinical Frailty Score which scores people from 1 (very fit) to 9 (terminally ill), 16% of patients with a score of less than 5 died, 42% of patients with a score of 5 died, 67 % of patients with a score of 6 died, 82% of patients with score of 7 and 8 died, and 100 % of patients with a score of 9 died early. There is no doubt that avoiding the illness if you are over 65 and frail is the most effective strategy until there is a widely available effective vaccine.

It is highly likely that some older people you are looking after will unfortunately die from this disease or will die with this disease from their underlying health conditions over the coming months. It is important to remember that while older people are the most likely to be seriously affected by COVID-19, many will recover from it. Treatment for the virus must be determined by clinical need and best evidence and not by age alone.

It is worth noting also that there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that COVID-19 can occur with atypical presentations, especially in older people. For example in Italy, 24% of COVID-19 patients who died during pandemic had no fever, 27% had no dyspnea, and 61% had no cough. There are also descriptions of older people with COVID-19 presenting with a history of falls or delirium suggesting that there is a need for an early assessment of frailty in the community and careful monitoring of physical and cognitive status during this current period of social restriction In addition, the lack of physical activity in those restricted or those sheilding may be contributing to muscle mass loss, weakness, and falls, as well as having an impact on their mental health status. Again early assessment of frailty can be extremely useful to identify frail people who at risk of deterioration due to these factors.

Finally, people recovering post-COVID-19 may still exhibit extra-pulmonary manifestations, including neurological, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal disorders increasing their likelihood of frailty or worsening already existent frailty. Hence, most of the older people post virus may require functional, neuromotor, respiratory, and cardiac rehabilitation, which all warrant frailty assessment. 

The key message in all of this is that frailty assessment which is being encouraged by NICE for all older adults being admitted hospital is equally and perhaps more valuable for all people in the community at risk from the COVID-19 virus. It should perhaps be considered as a vital sign, at least until the current crisis is over.

On a practical note it also worth noting that the British Geriatric Society have compiled a page of resources for keeping older people safe at home. It is particularly relevant for shielding and isolated older people but also applies more generally to older people who live without assistance in their own homes and might be exposed to other risk factors or hazards. You can find it at:

https://www.bgs.org.uk/resources/keeping-older-people-safe-and-well-at-home

They also have a page of wider advice designed for health and social care professionals which can be found at : https://www.bgs.org.uk/resources/resource-series/coronavirus-and-older-people

Guidance for providing care and support at home to people who have had COVID-19 was published by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) this week (14th of November 2020).You can find it at:

https://www.scie.org.uk/care-providers/coronavirus-covid-19/home-care/recovering-at-home

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