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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Cases climb among the unvaccinated as delta variant spreads

Latest Updates

  • FDA panel recommends authorizing booster shots for Moderna, J&J vaccines. An advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has voted in favor of authorizing booster shots for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. The panel recommends authorization for Moderna’s half-dose booster shot for people 65 and older as well as those at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions or their jobs, at least six months after the initial series — the same population included in the eligibility criteria for Pfizer’s booster, which was authorized last month. And the experts voted in favor of authorizing J&J’s booster for adults 18 and older, at least two months after the first dose. It’s possible that health officials recommend J&J vaccine recipients get boosted with a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in the future, but no guidance for so-called mixing and matching was issued during the Oct. 14 and 15 meetings.

    If the FDA accepts its committee’s recommendations and authorizes the two boosters, a similar process will take place at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Its advisory committee will review the Moderna and J&J booster data and issue guidance to the agency. A final sign-off from the CDC director will signal it’s OK for shots to go in arms.
  • Pfizer reports its low-dose vaccine is safe and effective in kids. Kids ages 5 to 11 generated a robust immune response to a smaller-dose version of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, the company has announced, citing results from its clinical trial. And the shot — which is one-third of the amount given to adults, also administered in two doses — was found to be safe and well tolerated in the pediatric population. On Oct. 7, the companies submitted a request to the FDA for emergency use authorization for this age group. The FDA still needs to review the data before it grants authorization; a panel of outside experts is scheduled to advise the agency on the decision this month.
  • U.S. invests $1 billion to expand availability of rapid at-home COVID tests. The Biden administration is investing $1 billion to quadruple the number of rapid at-home tests available for Americans by the end of the year, said Jeffrey Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, in an Oct. 6 briefing. The investment will also increase access to free testing at community sites, including pharmacies. "Together, the steps we’re taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or zip code, can access accurate, convenient and affordable testing," Zients said. The news came one day after the FDA authorized a new rapid at-home test, the Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test. The U.S. has recently experienced a shortage of over-the-counter tests. They have been available in major retailers since spring, but demand for them spiked during delta's rise to dominance and a return to in-person work and learning.
  • Merck seeks FDA authorization for pill to treat COVID-19. An experimental antiviral medication  from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, a pill called molnupiravir, has been shown in clinical trials to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by about 50 percent in non-hospitalized adult patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were at higher risk for severe outcomes, according to the drugmakers. Merck has asked the FDA to authorize the medication under emergency use. If cleared, it would be the first pill to treat COVID-19; other FDA-approved or authorized treatments require an injection or infusion. In a press briefing, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci welcomed the news and said government scientists will review the data as quickly as possible. Still, health officials say effective treatments are just one tool in the toolbox to protect people from COVID-19. "Vaccination remains far and away our best tool against COVID-19,"  White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients said. "It can prevent you from getting COVID in the first place. And we want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them once they happen." 

  • Vaccines likely saved the lives of 39,000 older adults, federal report shows. A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that vaccinations were linked to a reduction of approximately 265,000 COVID-19 infections, 107,000 hospitalizations and 39,000 deaths among Medicare beneficiaries between January and May. Before vaccines became available to the public, nearly 80 percent of deaths from COVID were among people 65 and older, the report states. To date, about 95 percent of Americans 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose; roughly 84 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. 
  • Unvaccinated individuals are over 10 times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. New studies released by the CDC show that despite delta’s dominance, the COVID-19 vaccines are still keeping people out of the hospital. In one report, researchers looked at more than 600,000 COVID-19 cases across 13 states this spring and summer and found that unvaccinated individuals were about five times as likely to get a coronavirus infection as vaccinated people, and they were over 10 times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and about 11 times as likely to die from it. A second study found overall vaccine effectiveness in preventing hospitalization to be about 86 percent, even with delta as the dominant variant. Effectiveness, however, was lower among adults 75 and older (about 76 percent) than those 18 to 74 (about 89 percent). “The bottom line is this: We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “Vaccination works and will protect us from the severe complications of COVID-19.”

  • Breakthrough infections are less likely to lead to long COVID. Vaccinated people who get a breakthrough coronavirus infection are about half as likely to experience the persisting symptoms of COVID-19, or long COVID, compared with unvaccinated people who get infected with the virus, a new study shows. The report, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, is based on data from the COVID Symptom Study app. It found that fully vaccinated adults who had a breakthrough infection were 49 percent less likely to have symptoms lasting at least four weeks after infection. Long COVID has affected millions of people since the start of the pandemic, and many have reported debilitating symptoms. As a result, clinics have popped up all over the country to study the phenomenon and to help these so-called long-haulers get back to normal. 

Answers to the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19.

How can you catch COVID-19?  

COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by a virus, SARS-CoV-2 (the new coronavirus). It’s spread in three main ways, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can catch COVID-19 by breathing in air if you are close to an infected person who is exhaling small droplets and particles that contain the virus. You can also get it if those small droplets and particles land in your eyes, nose or mouth (likely through coughs or sneezes), or if you have virus particles on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

Who is at risk for COVID-19?

Anyone can get COVID-19, but some people are more at risk for what experts call “severe disease,” when hospitalization or intensive care may be required. Older adults are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people who were 50 or older — and the risk increases with age.

Adults of any age with an underlying medical condition are also at increased risk for complications from a coronavirus infection, including people with:  

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung diseases, including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma (moderate to severe), interstitial lung disease, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension
  • Dementia or other neurological conditions
  • Diabetes (type 1 or type 2)
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies or hypertension)
  • HIV infection
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system)
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight and obesity (defined as a body mass index of 25 or greater)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Smoking, current or former
  • Solid organ or blood stem cell transplant (includes bone marrow transplants)
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease, which affects blood flow to the brain
  • Substance use disorders (such as alcohol, opioid or cocaine use disorder)

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What can you do to reduce your risk?

Get vaccinated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially approved one COVID-19 vaccine — a two-shot series from Pfizer-BioNTech — and has issued emergency use authorizations (EUA) for two other COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (J&J). Full approval for these vaccines may be forthcoming.

All three vaccines are safe and effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Health officials are encouraging everyone who is 12 and older to get vaccinated (shots for younger populations are still being evaluated), including people who have had COVID-19 in the past.

Other ways to lower the likelihood of getting sick from COVID-19: Wear a face mask in public indoor settings; avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces; put at least 6 feet between yourself and others not in your household; and wash your hands often.

Do the vaccines have side effects?

It’s common to experience mild to moderate side effects after getting vaccinated, such as soreness in the arm, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, nausea, fever or chills — but these are temporary “and normal signs that your body is building protection,” the CDC says.

To date, no long-term side effects have been detected.

A small number of vaccine recipients have experienced adverse reactions. These serious events after COVID-19 vaccination “are rare but may occur,” the CDC says. Anaphylaxis after COVID-19 vaccination has occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the U.S., and 46 cases of a clotting disorder following the J&J vaccine have been recorded, according to the CDC. Health officials are also monitoring reports of Guillain-Barré Syndrome in people who have received the J&J shot, and myocarditis or pericarditis in some younger adults after vaccination.

Can you get COVID-19 even if you’re fully vaccinated?

The COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection and serious illness, the CDC says. In fact, studies show fully vaccinated people are 8 times less likely to be infected and 25 times less likely to experience hospitalization or death.  

However, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective, so it is still possible for some fully vaccinated individuals to get COVID-19. This is called a “breakthrough infection.”

Fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infections are less likely to develop serious illness from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, the CDC says, but they can still be contagious and spread the virus to others. This is why health officials recommend that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a face mask in public indoor settings — especially in areas where virus transmission levels are high or substantial. This can help prevent people with asymptomatic or mild illness from unknowingly spreading the virus to others.

It’s difficult to estimate how many people have asymptomatic or mild breakthrough infections. Severe breakthrough infections, however, are tracked and are rare. As of Sept. 7, about 0.008 percent of the 176 fully vaccinated Americans have been hospitalized with COVID-19 or have died from the disease.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms that typically appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, including: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea 

The CDC acknowledges this list is not exhaustive, and some more unusual symptoms have been noted throughout the pandemic — from cognitive complications to skin rashes. 

A COVID-19 test can help you determine if you have an infection. You can also check the CDC’s interactive guide for advice on appropriate medical care.  

Most people with COVID-19 can recover at home. However, if you develop emergency warning signs — pain or pressure in the chest; new disorientation or confusion; pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds; difficulty breathing; or an inability to wake or stay awake — get medical attention immediately.  

What should I know about testing? 

The CDC says you should consider getting a COVID-19 test if: 

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • You have had close contact with someone with confirmed COVID-19.
  • You are unvaccinated and have taken part in an activity that puts you at higher risk for COVID-19, such as traveling or attending a large event.
  • You have been asked to get tested by a health care provider or state or local health department.

Your health care provider should be able to administer a COVID-19 test. You can also contact your local health department to find out about testing locations. Many pharmacies are also offering on-site testing.

Another option: The FDA has authorized a handful of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests that you can take at home. These so-called rapid antigen tests require a nasal swab and can deliver results in about 15 minutes. Many major retailers sell these tests. Learn more about them here.  

Are there treatments?

 So far, the FDA has approved just one treatment for COVID-19 — the antiviral drug remdesivir, which is for people hospitalized with COVID-19. A few other therapies have EUAs from the FDA, including monoclonal antibody treatments, which help to mimic the body’s immune system and fight off a viral infection. These are often administered to people who have COVID-19 and are at high risk of the illness progressing to severe disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020 issued guidelines that strongly recommend the use of dexamethasone (along with other inexpensive and common corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone) for the treatment of patients “with severe and critical COVID-19.” Clinical trials found that corticosteroids cut the risk of death in patients hospitalized with the disease. 

Convalescent plasma has also received an EUA from the FDA. Blood plasma donated by individuals who have recovered from a coronavirus infection can contain antibodies that may speed recovery when administered to patients hospitalized with COVID-19. However, the NIH COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines find there is not enough evidence to recommend these treatments at the present time, according to the CDC.  

the covid vaccine in your state

The latest on how to get the vaccine.

What about travel during the pandemic?

Before you make travel plans, be sure to double-check any rules pertaining to your destination and mode of transportation. Many states, cities and countries have travel restrictions or guidelines in place that could affect your trip. AARP has a list of coronavirus restrictions in every state. Plus, the CDC has country-specific travel recommendations based on COVID-19 risk levels. 

The CDC says both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers should still follow these recommendations for traveling safely: 

  • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth. Masks are required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, and also in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.

  • Keep a safe distance from others and avoid crowds. ​

  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer. 

Fully vaccinated travelers are “less likely to get and spread COVID-19” health officials say, but they should still be on alert. They can leave the country without getting a COVID-19 test unless their destination requires it, and they do not need to self-quarantine after returning to the U.S. unless it’s required by a local jurisdiction.

However, vaccinated people are still required to have a negative COVID-19 test result before they board an international flight in order to return to the U.S., the CDC says, and they should take a COVID-19 test three to five days after returning. People are fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. ​​If you are unvaccinated: The CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated because travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Testing can help you travel more safely, the CDC says. The CDC recommends getting tested with a viral test one to three days before your trip. Keep a copy of your test results with you during travel; you may be asked for them.

International travel is strongly discouraged for unvaccinated individuals. Those who must travel should have a negative COVID-19 viral test result no more than three days before leaving the country and they are required to have a negative COVID-19 viral test result no more than three days before returning to the U.S.

Testing and quarantining are also advised upon return. AARP has information about specific travel advisories, and airline change fees, as well as tips on how to stay safe when you travel.

What are the variants?

Public health officials have identified several new strains of the coronavirus, some of which are more contagious and may cause more severe illness.

So far, the available vaccines still provide a high level of protection against the circulating variants, including against delta — the dominant variant in the U.S. that is responsible for about 99 percent of new COVID-19 cases.

However, the more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. And it may be that one day, a new variant pops up with the ability to evade the current tools we have to fight it. The best way to prevent this scenario, health experts say, is to get vaccinated and slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

What is long COVID?

Many COVID-19 survivors battle lingering symptoms for weeks or months after infection, even if the initial infection was mild or asymptomatic. Sometimes called “long-haulers,” they suffer from dizziness, insomnia, confusion, a racing heart or a host of other lasting effects that keep them from getting back to their normal lives. A recent report published by the CDC found that as many as one-third of people with COVID-19 had lingering symptoms two months after a positive test result.

Experts encourage COVID-19 patients experiencing long COVID to seek care from a medical provider. Several U.S. hospitals and research centers have set up special clinics and rehabilitation services for survivors.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments. Check back regularly.

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