As the pandemic enters its fourth year, it remains especially important for older adults who are most at risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 to remain informed about the latest developments with the disease including new variants and treatments. Here’s a summary of recent coronavirus news that’s particularly relevant to people 50 and older, followed by answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19.
Latest COVID-19 news
New COVID-19 vaccines get the green light (Sept. 12). A new batch of COVID-19 vaccines that are a closer match to many of the coronavirus variants that are currently circulating throughout the U.S. have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re expected to arrive in pharmacies and doctors’ offices as early as this week, health officials say. The shots, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, target the XBB.1.5 strain of omicron. While this particular variant is no longer driving the majority of the country’s infections, its close relatives are, and experts say the vaccines should provide good protection against them. It's recommended that individuals 6 months and older get the new vaccine ahead of the fall and winter virus season.
U.S. experiences a late-summer surge (Aug. 28). After several months of declining numbers, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again increasing in the U.S., though they remain low compared with previous pandemic surges. Updated vaccines are expected to help curb illness. In the meantime, experts are encouraging people who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms — and especially older adults, who are at higher risk of hospitalization and death from the illness — to get tested, since available treatments can help keep a mild infection from turning into something more severe.
CDC launches bridge program for vaccines (July 14). The CDC announced plans to launch a bridge program that offers free COVID-19 vaccines to uninsured and underinsured Americans when the vaccines move to the commercial market this fall. When that happens, the agency says COVID vaccines will still be free for most Americans through their health insurance plans. “However, there are 25-30 million adults (ages 18-64) without insurance and additional adults whose insurance will not provide free COVID-19 vaccines after these products move onto the commercial market,” the CDC reports on its website. Under the new bridge program, the agency will purchase COVID-19 vaccines and distribute them to federally qualified health centers and participating pharmacies. Free vaccines through this program will not be available after December 2024.
How can you catch COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. It’s spread in three main ways, according to the 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 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 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,” at which time hospitalization or intensive care may be required. Older adults are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19. The vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people 50 or older — and the risk increases with age.
Adults of any age with an underlying medical condition are at increased risk for complications from a coronavirus infection. Among the factors:
- 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
- Mental health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders
- Overweight and obesity (defined as a body mass index of 25 or greater)
- 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)
What can you do to reduce your risk?
Get vaccinated and boosted. The FDA has officially approved two vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — and has issued an emergency-use authorization (EUA) for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Novavax.
All three vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Health officials encourage everyone 6 months and older to get vaccinated, including people who have had COVID-19. Updated vaccines that target more current variants are now approved and will soon be available. Health officials are encouraging everyone 6 months and older to get the shot ahead of fall and winter virus season.
Other ways to lower the likelihood of getting sick from COVID-19: Wear a high-quality face mask in public indoor settings , avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces 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.
A small number of vaccine recipients have experienced adverse reactions to the shots. These serious events after COVID-19 vaccination “are rare but may occur,” the CDC says. Anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction, has occurred in a small share of the vaccinated population. This is why you may be asked to wait about 15 minutes after your shot or booster to monitor for symptoms. Vaccine providers are equipped with medicines to quickly treat the reaction.
Health officials are also monitoring reports of myocarditis or pericarditis in some adolescents and younger adults after vaccination with the Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax vaccines. Most of these patients who received care responded well to medicine and felt better quickly, the CDC says.
Can you get COVID-19 even if you’re fully vaccinated?
The COVID-19 vaccines can help prevent a coronavirus infection, and they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. Unvaccinated individuals are more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their vaccinated peers who are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, federal data from February 2023 shows. Death rates are also higher among unvaccinated adults.
Despite these protections, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus — and data shows that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines than previous variants.
Though people with breakthrough infections are less likely to develop serious illness from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, they can still be contagious and spread the virus to others. Wearing a mask in indoor public settings can help prevent people with asymptomatic or mild illness from unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
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
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- Loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
This list is not exhaustive, and 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. Most people with COVID-19 can recover at home. However, if you develop emergency warning signs — pain or pressure in the chest; 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.