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

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

Latest updates

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  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on July 2 issued an executive order requiring all Texans to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases. Several other states have similar mask mandates in place, and the plea from health experts for the public to wear face masks has intensified in recent weeks, as coronavirus cases continue to climb in many areas of the U.S., including Texas. "Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another — and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces.”

  • The American Medical Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the National Association of County and City Health Officials issued a joint statement urging Americans to limit Fourth of July gatherings to close contacts, such as family members and housemates. “Failure to exercise these basic steps will result in a rise in COVID-19 cases, additional hotspots, and larger hurdles in the way of reopening,” the statement says. 

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a set of guidelines for drug makers, detailing requirements for vaccine approval. Coronavirus vaccine candidates need to be at least 50 percent effective compared to a placebo in clinical trials, the agency says. And safety considerations “should be no different than for other preventive vaccines for infectious diseases.” The vaccine process, which typically takes years, is being sped up in the U.S. to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. In a July 2 hearing before a Senate subcommittee, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins informed lawmakers that recently reported coronavirus mutations don’t appear to threaten vaccine strategies in the works. 

  • In a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on June 30, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, warned that the U.S. is “going to continue to be in a lot of trouble” if coronavirus cases keep climbing. The U.S. is currently experiencing about 40,000 new cases a day; Fauci said it could get as bad as 100,000 daily cases. Public health officials also told senators that the CDC is developing a plan to rebuild “vaccine confidence.” At least 70 percent of the population will need to be immune to the virus to achieve herd immunity — ideally closer to 85 percent, said Fauci, who is “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. will have a vaccine for the coronavirus by the beginning of 2021.  

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced on June 29 that it has secured more than 500,000 treatment courses of the antiviral drug remdesivir from maker Gilead Sciences. The drug — which has an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of COVID-19 and was shown in clinical trials to reduce recovery time for coronavirus patients — will be distributed to health departments and hospitals throughout the U.S. Gilead has priced remdesivir at $520 per vial, or about $3,120 per treatment course, for U.S. hospitals that treat the typical patient with private insurance. AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond said in a statement that "any COVID-19 vaccine or treatment must be affordable and accessible." 

  • The CDC on June 25 expanded its warning of who is most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, dropping 65 as the age-specific threshold for when risk increases in adults. “To put it another way: There’s not an exact cutoff of age at which people should or should not be concerned,” CDC official Jay Butler said. The CDC also clarified which underlying conditions are most associated with COVID-19 hospitalizations and death. On the list: chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), obesity (BMI of 30 or higher), a weakened immune system, type 2 diabetes, sickle cell disease and heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies.

  • The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — three states where coronavirus cases are falling —  have announced a  joint travel advisory that all individuals traveling from states with significant community spread of COVID-19 must quarantine for a 14-day period from the time of last contact within the identified state. The U.S. is experiencing an increasing number of new cases; several states recorded record highs during the week of the announcement, including California, Florida and Texas, according to the COVID Tracking Project. “We've worked very hard to get the viral transmission rate down and we don't want to see it go up again because people are traveling into the state and bringing it with them,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a news release.

  • Black and Hispanic Americans have higher mortality rates when accounting for age than white Americans, a new analysis from the Brookings Institution shows. What’s more, a report released June 17 from the CDC found that black patients in Atlanta with COVID-19 were more likely to be hospitalized than white patients between March and April, further underscoring the racial disparities in the disease. About 79 percent of black patients were hospitalized, compared to 13 percent of white patients. These are the latest in a series of recent reports that show minority populations are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Nursing homes serving minorities have been hit harder by the virus, as well. The federal government on Tuesday announced a $40 million initiative with the Morehouse School of Medicine to fight COVID-19 in racial and ethnic minority, rural and socially vulnerable communities.

  • Preliminary results from a study led by the University of Oxford have found that the steroid drug dexamethasone, which has been used since the 1960s to reduce inflammation in a range of conditions, reduced deaths by up to a third in severely ill patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The full study has not been published, but in a statement, the WHO called the findings “great news.” 

  • The FDA on June 15 revoked the emergency use authorization it previously issued for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat people hospitalized with COVID-19. In a statement the agency said the drugs are “unlikely to be effective” in treating the disease, and that “in light of ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects, the known and potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine no longer outweigh the known and potential risks for the authorized use.” On June 20, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it stopped its clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine, saying the drug is “unlikely to be beneficial to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

  • The CDC has updated its official list of COVID-19 symptoms. Warning signs of the illness include: 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; and diarrhea. Symptoms that require immediate medical attention include: trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; and bluish lips or face.


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 are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There is no specific age at which risk increases. Rather, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says “risk increases steadily as you age” and despite initial warnings from the agency, “it’s not just those over the age of 65 who are at increased risk for severe illness.”  

Part of the reason risk increases with age is because people are more likely to have other health issues later in life, and underlying health conditions are a huge driver of complications that arise from COVID-19. A June report from the CDC found that hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 were six times as high for patients with chronic health conditions, compared to otherwise healthy individuals; deaths among this population were 12 times as high.

Health conditions most associated with severe illness from COVID-19 include:

  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A weakened immune system from organ transplant
  • Obesity (BMI of 30 or higher)
  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Health conditions that might increase risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include:

  • Asthma (moderate to severe)
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • A weakened immune system
  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues)
  • Smoking
  • Thalassemia (a type of blood disorder)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus

The CDC has issued specific guidance for older adults and people at high risk for serious outcomes. Here’s what the agency recommends:

Avoid close contact with others

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are encouraged to limit interactions with people outside their household as much as possible and to take preventive measures when interactions do take place. Wash your hands often with soap and water and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not an option. Keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others when in public; cover your coughs and sneezes; and disinfect high-touch surfaces often.

The CDC also recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public to help slow the spread of the virus.

It’s a good idea to draft a plan in case you do become sick, experts say. 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.

Stock up on supplies 

Older Americans and adults who routinely take medications should make sure they have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medicines on hand. 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.

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What about travel? 

The government advises against all nonessential international travel, including cruise ship travel, during the pandemic. As far as domestic travel is concerned, the CDC encourages travelers to study the current situation ahead of their trip to “learn if coronavirus is spreading in your local area or in any of the places you are going.”

For older adults and others at high risk for severe illness from a coronavirus infection, traveling can be dangerous, especially if you are in close contact with others. “People at higher risk for severe illness need to take extra precautions,” the CDC says. Staying home is still the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick, the agency adds.

If you do decide to travel, the CDC outlines steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting sick:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Wear a cloth face covering in public settings.

The CDC also recommends making sure that you are up to date with your routine vaccinations before you travel, including the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the seasonal flu vaccine. And do not travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

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 “the virus may be spread in other ways,” including by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus 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?

People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms that typically appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Here is the latest list of symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • 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; 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, new disorientation or confusion, a blue tint in your face or lips, difficulty breathing, or an inability to wake or stay awake — 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? 

More data show African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are disproportionately being affected by the virus and the illness it causes.

handful of recent studies report Black Americans are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The Black population is also shouldering a disproportionate number of deaths from the coronavirus. Blacks account for nearly 23 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. to date, even though Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the country's population, according to the latest data from the CDC. In several states, including Michigan, Arkansas and Alabama, and in the District of Columbia, the disparity in deaths is even more pronounced.

Several states report the share of COVID-19 cases among Hispanics to be higher than their share of the population, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, a collaboration between the COVID Tracking Project and the Antiracist Research & Policy Center. In New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic in the U.S., more Hispanics per capita have succumbed to the illness than any other ethnic group, an April report showed.

And death rates have been especially high in the Navajo Nation, which has land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. American Indians make up 21 percent of deaths in Arizona but only 4 percent of the state's population, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In New Mexico, Native Americans account for 37 percent of coronavirus cases but only 9 percent of the population. Utah does not have racial data on its cases.

The federal government on June 23 announced a $40 million initiative with Morehouse School of Medicine to fight COVID-19 in racial and ethnic minority, rural and socially vulnerable communities.

How is it treated?

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.

Preliminary results from a study led by the University of Oxford also found the steroid drug dexamethasone reduced deaths by up to a third in severely ill patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The federal government has distributed both remdesivir and dexamethasone to states across the country. 

What are prospects for a vaccine?

Several clinical trials testing the safety and effectiveness of potential vaccine candidates are underway, including one from drugmaker Moderna. Phase three of its clinical trial is expected to begin in July.

So when will a vaccine be available? Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, said in a June 23 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he is “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. will have a vaccine for the coronavirus by the end of 2020 or early in 2021. He confirmed that several vaccine candidates are moving through clinical trial phases and that the federal government is taking financial risks “so that when — and I believe it will be when, not if — we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public.” More than 100 research teams around the world are working on vaccine development, according to the Milken Institute’s COVID-19 Treatment and Vaccine Tracker.

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, according to CDC official Nancy Messonnier. 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 or pressure in the chest, new confusion, an inability to wake or stay awake, 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 and questions for assisted living facilities — plus extensive coverage on the crisis in nursing homes. You can also track coronavirus cases and deaths in specific nursing homes on a new website that the federal government unveiled on June 4. AARP is also keeping track of this data. 

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. AARP has an FAQ resource for family and friends of nursing home residents who are eager to resume visits.

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.

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