Skip to content

Latest Updates on Coronavirus: Older Americans Urged to Continue ‘Distancing’

As states reopen, high-risk individuals are asked to stay home in early phases

AARP is hosting weekly live Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall Thursdays

Special Coronavirus Tele-Town Hall: Caregiving

Caring for Loved Ones in Care Facilities with special guests Emmy-winning actress and New York Times best-selling author Susan Lucci and AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins

This week’s live Q&A event addressed the national tragedy of 30,000 deaths from the coronavirus occurring in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and ongoing concerns for the safety of, and ability to connect with, loved ones in these facilities.

Actress Susan Lucci shared the story of her 103-year-old mother living in an assisted living community during the pandemic, and AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins outlined AARP’s efforts to support family caregivers and protect residents and staff in these facilities. This conversation  was followed by a panel discussion with experts who answered  listeners' questions. Listen to a replay of the event here

Latest updates

En español

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its understanding of how COVID-19 spreads. While the agency has always maintained that the coronavirus “is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person,” it is now downplaying the risk of whether one can contract the virus from touching a contaminated surface or object. “The virus spreads easily between people,” a headline on the CDC’s website says. Under it: another headline that reads, “The virus does not spread easily in other ways,” including from touching surfaces or objects. “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus,” the CDC says. The advice on how to best protect yourself from an infection remains the same: Avoid close contact with others, wash your hands often, disinfect high-touch surfaces, and cover your nose and mouth with a cloth face covering when in public.

  • The CDC released new resources this week to assist states, communities and businesses with reopening plans so they can “operate as safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The 60-page document also offers guidance for summer camps, schools and restaurants and bars. “Decisions and strategies about how to operate are implemented at the state, tribal, local, and territorial levels because every locale is different, and individual jurisdictions have the authority and local awareness needed to protect their communities,” the CDC said in a news release. 

  • The federal government this week advised governors to “proceed with extreme caution” before relaxing policies that ban visitors from long-term care facilities, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. Before visits can resume, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) says facilities should have no new cases for 28 days. They should also conduct routine testing and have adequate staff and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning and disinfection materials on hand. 

  • The majority of states across the country have started the three-phased process of reopening their economies. Older adults and people at high risk for complications associated with COVID-19 are encouraged to continue to stay home as much as possible and to limit contact with others during the first two phases of reopening plans. Federal guidelines recommend that people continue to wash their hands frequently and maintain physical distancing for the foreseeable future.

  • The CDC released a health alert on May 14 to U.S. doctors, urging them to be on the lookout for a multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children that has been linked to the coronavirus. The syndrome, which the CDC says has Kawasaki disease-like features, has been seen in cases throughout Europe and the U.S. Experts warn parents and grandparents to keep an eye out for persistent fever, serious abdominal pain, trouble breathing, a sudden rash and an overall ill feeling in children. 

  • About 1 in 5 U.S. adults under the age of 65 is at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 because of an underlying health condition that can aggravate the disease. But in minority communities, the numbers are higher. More than 1 in 3 (34 percent) American Indian/Alaska Native adults and 27 percent of black adults under age 65 are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions, a May analysis from Kaiser Family Foundation found. What’s more, 35 percent of adults under the age of 65 with household incomes below $15,000 are at higher risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus, compared to about 1 in 7 (16 percent) of adults with household incomes greater than $50,000.

What You Should Know About the Coronavirus

What can older adults do to reduce their risk of illness? 

Older adults and people with chronic underlying health conditions — including diabetes, heart disease, severe obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, lung disease and asthma — are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious symptoms from the illness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19). People with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients, and those living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities are also at increased risk for COVID-19 complications.

In addition to severe illness, risk of death from the coronavirus is higher in older adults. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults age 65 and older. The CDC has issued specific guidance for older adults and other people at high risk for serious outcomes. Here’s what the agency recommends:

Stay home and avoid close contact with others

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are encouraged to stay home as much as possible and to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others, even as communities around the country begin to relax restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This advice carries through the first two phases of reopening guidelines drafted by the White House coronavirus task force.

And while limiting contact with others is one way to slow the spread of the virus and protect high-risk populations from infection, public health experts also are advising everyday actions that can reduce risk of infection, such as frequent handwashing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks. 

Stock up on supplies 

Older Americans and adults who routinely take medications should make sure they have “adequate supplies” on hand, said Nancy Messonnier, an internist and director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.

It’s also important to stock up on over-the-counter medications to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues and common medical supplies.

Major health insurers have pledged to relax prescription refill limits on “maintenance medications” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Prescription refill limits are also being waived for many Medicare Advantage and Part D beneficiaries. 

If you run into difficulty stocking up on your prescriptions at the pharmacy, consider refilling your medications with a mail-order service, the CDC says. You can also ask your physician to switch your prescription from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply to make sure you have enough medication to get through a longer period of time.

And make sure you have enough food in the house in case you have to stay home for an extended period. If you need to run out for necessities, the CDC has guidance on how to do so safely. On the list:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others while shopping and while in line.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth face covering. 
  • Consider running your errands first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. when fewer people are likely to be shopping. Some stores have special shopping hours for high-risk individuals. 
  • Disinfect your shopping cart or basket with disinfectant wipes.
  • Use hand sanitizer right away if you handle money, a card or a keypad.
  • Wash your hands when you get home.
  • When getting gasoline, use disinfectant wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them; use hand sanitizer immediately after.

dynamic a logo mark for a a r p

Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.

What’s the best way to protect myself?

Limit exposure. That’s the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This means staying home as much as you can and minimizing contact with others, especially crowds. Avoid all nonessential travel and consider contact-free pickup and delivery options as an alternative to going out in public for food and other necessities. 

Health officials also advise taking everyday steps that can prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. Wash your hands often with soap and water (scrub for at least 20 seconds), and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap is not an option. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and cover your coughs and sneezes. 

Some other advice: Stay home when you are sick, keep a distance of at least 6 feet between you and others, and clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. 

“This is the other side of not spreading the disease, which is not catching it,” Messonnier said.  

It’s also a good idea to draft a plan in case you do become sick. Identify a designated sickroom in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from healthy ones. And identify aid organizations in your community that you can contact for help should you need it.

What about travel? 

The government advises against all nonessential travel, domestic or foreign, and has issued a strong warning against cruise travel during the pandemic. 

The government has banned travelers from more than 30 countries to the U.S. Several other countries are doing the same in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. 

The CDC, U.S. State Department and World Health Organization (WHO) websites have up-to-date travel information.

How is the coronavirus spreading?

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the CDC. Those droplets can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or be inhaled into the lungs. The CDC says it “does not spread easily in other ways,” including by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

However, “COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning about how it spreads,” the agency maintains.  

Health officials are still working to better understand how easily the virus is spread from person to person. Research shows that COVID-19 can be spread by people who are not showing symptoms. A population-based study in Iceland, for example, found that 43 percent of participants who tested positive for the virus reported no symptoms at the time of the test. Similarly, 45 percent of positive cases in an Indiana-based population survey were asymptomatic when tested, and about 18 percent of people onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship never developed symptoms of a coronavirus infection.

What are the symptoms?

Patients with COVID-19 have reported symptoms similar to other respiratory illnesses, including

  • Mild to severe fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath.

Chills, muscle pain, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell may also indicate a coronavirus infection. Other less common symptoms have been reported, including gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, the CDC says. Skin rashes or lesions may also be a sign of the virus.

The CDC is asking anyone who experiences symptoms to call their health care provider or local health department for advice before seeking care to avoid spreading germs to others. Those who are feeling sick and are unsure of their symptoms can also check the CDC’s interactive guide for advice on appropriate medical care.  

However, if you develop emergency warning signs — pain or pressure in the chest, disorientation or confusion, a blue tint in your face or lips, or difficulty breathing or shortness of breath — get medical attention immediately, health officials warn. Many patients with severe complications from the virus develop pneumonia and may require assistance breathing with a ventilator.

Doctors who suspect COVID-19 can order a test. Legislation signed into law March 18 makes coronavirus tests available at no cost.

The CDC also has tips for what to do if you become infected with COVID-19.

What do we know about minority populations? 

Early indications show African Americans, Hispanics and other minority populations are disproportionately being affected by the virus and the illness it causes.

A mid-April analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) showed that in the majority of states reporting data that include race and ethnicity, black Americans account for a higher share of confirmed cases and deaths compared to their share of the total population. An earlier report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied a handful of states and found that among patients for whom information on race and ethnicity was available, black Americans were hospitalized at higher rates than whites for COVID-19. What’s more, in New York City, the U.S. community hardest hit by the virus, more Hispanics per capita are succumbing to the illness than any other ethnic group.

Infection rates have been especially high in the Navajo Nation, which has land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, with more than 2,700 cases and 88 deaths as of May 8. The KFF analysis shows that Native Americans make up more than a third of cases in New Mexico but only 9 percent of the state’s population. In Arizona, Native Americans account for 7 percent of cases and 21 percent of deaths, but 4 percent of the state’s population. Utah did not release racial data on its cases.

Many leading health experts point to underlying medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, as one explanation for why minority populations are seeing high rates of sickness and death from COVID-19. These conditions are more common in black, Hispanic and Native Americans. They also happen to be leading risk factors for severe illness from the coronavirus. 

There are also social and economic elements at play. Without a vaccine or approved drug therapies, health officials say one of the best ways to decrease the risk of infection from the coronavirus is to keep a physical distance from other people and to stay home as much as possible. But for many in minority communities, that is not an option. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that less than 20 percent of black workers and roughly 16 percent of Hispanic ones are able to telecommute. About two-thirds of employed Hispanic adults say they would not get paid if the coronavirus caused them to miss work for two weeks or more, a Pew Research Center survey found.

How is it treated?

There is no formally approved treatment for COVID-19 at this time. However the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 1 issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment option for people who are hospitalized with COVID-19.

The news came shortly after the NIH announced preliminary results from an international clinical trial testing remdesivir as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Researchers found that patients with severe illness who received the drug recovered faster than those who received a placebo. “Results also suggested a survival benefit,” the NIH said in a news release. The mortality rate for the group that received remdesivir was lower than for the placebo group.

The EUA — which is not the same as official FDA approval — “allows for remdesivir to be distributed in the U.S. and administered intravenously by health care providers” to treat patients who have low blood oxygen levels or who need breathing support by way of a mechanical ventilator.

What are prospects for a vaccine?

Phase 1 clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus are underway, and early data show promising results for at least one vaccine candidate from biotech company Moderna in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Participants who received two doses of the Moderna vaccine produced an immune response to the virus. Phase 3 of the trial is expected to begin in July.

Even still, some experts predict a vaccine is likely a year away, at minimum, from being available to the public. The White House has a more ambitious goal: It’s leading an effort to bring a coronavirus vaccine to the market by January 2021. Nearly 100 research teams around the world are working on vaccine development, according to the Milken Institute’s COVID-19 Treatment and Vaccine Tracker.

Why does it take so long?

A vaccine will need to be tested in a series of clinical trials — each lasting months — to determine its safety and effectiveness in people. If the vaccine proves safe and effective in the trials and is rushed through regulatory processes, it will still need to be produced for the masses, which also takes time.

Will a flu shot provide protection?

There is no evidence that the flu shot or the pneumococcal vaccination will provide any protection from the coronavirus, Messonnier said. Both, however, will increase your chances of staying healthy and staying out of the hospital during the pandemic.   

And it’s important to keep in mind that, like COVID-19, the flu can be deadly. The CDC estimates that the flu was responsible for 34,200 deaths in the 2018-19 season.

How can I take care of a sick friend?

Health officials stress that it’s important to take care of sick friends and neighbors in the community — and there’s a way to do so safely. If you are taking food to a neighbor, consider leaving it at the door. Since COVID-19 is most likely passed by respiratory droplets, this will eliminate the chance of the virus spreading.

If you are caring for someone who has COVID-19, keep a safe distance. Wash your hands often, wipe down high-touch surfaces and remind the person who is sick to wear a face mask. You should wear a face mask too. Offer to help with groceries and errands, if possible. And make sure the person who is sick drinks lots of fluids and rests. 

Finally: Watch for warning signs of serious illness. Call the doctor if the person’s condition worsens, and seek immediate medical attention if they have difficulty breathing, pain in the chest, new confusion, or blueish lips or face. 

“I think it is great we step up to help each other, and there are some commonsense precautions to protect you," the CDC’s Messonnier said.

What if a loved one is in a nursing home?

Adults living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities are at high risk for severe sickness if infected with the coronavirus, which is why facilities across the country are banning visitation (with special consideration given to end-of-life cases).  

If you have a loved one in a nursing home or long-term care facility, visit with them virtually: Stay in touch through videoconferencing, emails and phone calls. Send pictures or letters or drop off a care package. (Not all facilities may allow this, so check first.)

Also: Identify a point of contact on staff for when you have questions and concerns. Facilities are required by the federal government to alert residents, their families and the CDC within 12 hours if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed. 

AARP has a list of six key questions to ask about circumstances at your loved one’s nursing home, plus extensive coverage on the crisis in nursing homes. 

When will long-term care facilities ease up on their visitation policies? It could be a while. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on May 18 said nursing homes should be “among the last to reopen” and announced recommendations to state and local governments for the reopening process. On the list: Facilities need to have routine testing and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning and disinfection materials. Nearby hospitals also need to have enough beds to take care of any residents who need to be transferred there.

What is the advice on face masks?

The CDC is encouraging all Americans — even people who feel healthy — to wear cloth face masks or homemade face coverings in public when 6-feet social distancing is difficult to maintain in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The guidance, announced April 3, is a reversal from previous CDC recommendations that face masks only need to be worn by people who are sick with COVID-19 or by those caring for someone who is sick.

The masks the CDC is recommending can be purchased online or made at home. Health officials stress N95 respirator masks and surgical masks should be reserved for frontline health care workers.

AARP has a tutorial on how to make a face mask at home.

What, exactly, is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses, named for their crownlike shape, are a large family of viruses that are common in many species of animals. Several coronaviruses can infect people, according to the CDC. These strains mostly cause cold-like symptoms but can sometimes progress to more complicated lower respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

On rare occasion, animal coronaviruses can evolve and spread among humans, as seen with MERS and SARS. The virus at the center of the latest outbreak is being referred to as a novel (new) coronavirus, since it’s something that health officials have not seen before.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments in the global outbreak. Check back regularly.

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.