Acute mentally ill face ‘urgent’ gap in COVID vaccine shots

Acute mentally ill face ‘urgent’ gap in COVID vaccine shots

Americans with severe mental illnesses are facing an “urgent” gap in getting COVID shots, according to advocates, who say the community has gotten far less attention than other vulnerable groups such as seniors or homebound residents. 

The shortfall means people battling serious cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions remain at high risk even as the rest of the nation is planning summer vacations and putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror. 

COVID vaccination rates aren’t tracked specifically for people with severe mental illness. But a study published in January in the journal JAMA Psychology found that a schizophrenia diagnosis was the second-best predictor of mortality from the coronavirus, after age. 

“Those folks have a hard time accessing health care to begin with, and they have a really hard time with vaccinations,” said Michael Tozzoli, CEO at West Bergen Mental Healthcare, a Ridgewood-based agency that serves about 3,000 people. 

“There may be some fears on their part. A large mega-site is going to be scary and overwhelming to them, and there are pragmatic concerns around things like transportation,” Tozzoli said.

A nurse fills a syringe with a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Historically, it’s an under-vaccinated population, said Angela Kimball​, a director at the Arlington, Virginia-based National Alliance on Mental Illness. Only 25% of adults with severe mental illness get a flu shot each year, compared with almost 50% of all adults, according to the alliance. 

“People with more severe mental health conditions have largely been forgotten during this pandemic,” Kimball said. “They have been left out of targeted responses.”

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