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What Older, At-Risk People Should Know About the Coronavirus

With over 900 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, public health officials nationwide are urging older adults and people with serious medical conditions to take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus.

Since there is no vaccine yet for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends older adults postpone their dream cruise, cancel international flights, and avoid being in crowds, as least for now. The CDC also advises people with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, lung disease, and other serious health conditions to stay at home and avoid people who appear ill.

The CDC based its warnings on data from China where older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions were infected with the virus more than others in the general population. The coronavirus began in Wuhan, the capital city in China’s Hubei province in December 2019.

COVID-19 Declared a Pandemic

Because of the global outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally declared the new coronavirus a “pandemic” on March 11. As of that date, there have been more than 118,000 reported cases of the coronavirus worldwide and more than 4,200 deaths, according to WHO statistics.

In the United States, the majority of the confirmed COVID-19 cases are in California, New York, and Washington, the first state to report deaths from the virus. As of March 10, Washington reported 26 deaths, 22 of which were residents of one nursing home, according to Seattle & King County Public Health Department.

But to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in the general population, major universities are moving classes online, the NBA has suspended its basketball season, organizers have canceled national conferences, and popular musicians are canceling concerts.

Older Adults Advised To Stay on the Alert

To lower their risk of exposure to COVID-19, the CDC recommends that seniors stock up on food, paper products, and medications to avoid going outside of their home.

Besides older adults, the CDC advises the general population to:

  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use a hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Use a regular household cleaning spray or wipe to clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • Avoid sharing eating utensils, dishes, drinking glass, cups, bedding with other people in your home.
  • Leave your pets and other animals alone if you are sick.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams suggests holding off on wearing a face mask if you feel well. In fact, improperly wearing a mask could increase your risk of infection, according to the surgeon general. The face mask, instead, should be used by healthcare workers, caregivers taking care of someone in a home or a healthcare facility, and by people who have coronavirus symptoms.

How Does the Coronavirus Spread?

Since COVID-19 is a new disease, scientists are still learning about the illness and its severity. So far, health officials believe the virus spreads from people in close contact (about 6 feet) with each other. An infected person who sneezes or coughs can produce respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people near them or people nearby can inhale the droplets into the lungs, CDC officials said.

COVID-19 can also spread when people touch a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touch their lips, nose, or eyes, which is how viruses can enter the throat and lungs.

Coronavirus Symptoms

Public health officials say COVID-19 symptoms vary from person to person, but the most common symptoms are:

  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Sometimes people have cold- or flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea

Generally, COVID-19 symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Because the symptoms begin gradually, some people believe they have a common cold or flu until the symptoms worsen.

In contrast, some people do not have symptoms and do not feel sick, yet they have the coronavirus, according to WHO. Fortunately, about 80 percent of people who have the disease recover without needing special treatment, WHO statistics show. However, 1 out of 6 people become seriously ill from COVID-19.

In Case of Emergencies

If you have a fever, shortness of breath, dry cough, or other coronavirus symptoms, and want to see your doctor, the CDC advises you to call your doctor’s office first. Calling the office in advance will help office staff prepare for your arrival and prevent other people from getting exposed or infected.

Similarly, if you have a medical emergency, dial 911, and tell the dispatch operator about your symptoms or that you are being evaluated for COVID-19. Wear a face mask before you visit your doctor or before an emergency response team arrives.

The Next Steps

As scientists continue to work on a COVID-19 vaccine, and public health officials monitor the ever-changing global health crisis, older adults are advised to keep updated on the latest development on COVID-19 while taking as many safety precautions as possible.

The CDC provides daily coronavirus updates, to find out the latest news on the coronavirus, visit the CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 website.