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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Omicron's highly contagious subvariants circulate throughout the U.S.

Latest Updates

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COVID-19 vaccine from Novavax gets FDA authorization and CDC sign-off. Roughly one week after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed off on its use, making the vaccine the fourth one available to Americans in the fight against COVID-19. The two-shot series from Novavax, cleared for adults 18 and older, will be available in the coming weeks.

It uses a different, more traditional, technology than the other COVID-19 vaccines on the market. Instead of prompting the body to make its own version of the spike protein (a key part of the virus), the protein is made in a lab and then delivered directly upon injection. “If you have been waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine built on a different technology than those previously available, now is the time to join the millions of Americans who have been vaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “With COVID-19 cases on the rise again across parts of the country, vaccination is critical to help protect against the complications of severe COVID-19 disease.”

Health officials urge older adults to stay up to date on vaccines with arrival of BA.5. Health officials on July 12 encouraged adults 50 and older to get their second booster shot if they haven’t already. Doing so will ramp up protection against the highly contagious BA.5 variant, which is now the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. Officials say BA.5 “may have some increased ability to escape immunity, including from prior infections, meaning it has the potential to cause the number of infections to rise in the coming weeks.” Cases of COVID-19 are once again climbing; so are hospitalizations.

“If you’re over 50, that extra booster dramatically lowers your risk of getting into the hospital, going to the ICU and dying,” said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha. The latest data show that among those 50 and older, people who have received two booster shots are 42 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to those who are unvaccinated.

So far, less than one-third of adults 50 and older have received their second COVID-19 booster shot, federal data shows. What’s more, getting the booster now won’t preclude you from getting an updated version of the vaccine later this fall. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked both Pfizer and Moderna to make a COVID-19 vaccine that targets the original coronavirus strain, as well as omicron, including omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. 

Some pharmacists can now prescribe Paxlovid. The FDA is now allowing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe the COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid. Previously, individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 needed a prescription from their doctor or from a special test-to-treat site. People seeking Paxlovid from a pharmacist will need to show a copy of their recent health records (less than 12 months old) that include blood work so the pharmacist can review for kidney or liver problems. They'll also need to bring a list of all the medications they are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, so the pharmacist can screen for any potential drug interactions. 

“The FDA recognizes the important role pharmacists have played and continue to play in combating this pandemic,” Patrizia Cavazzoni, M.D., director for the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. “Since Paxlovid must be taken within five days after symptoms begin, authorizing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid could expand access to timely treatment for some patients who are eligible to receive this drug for the treatment of COVID-19.” The FDA still suggests, however, that people who test positive for COVID-19 first consider seeking care from their regular health care provider or from a test-to-treat site in their area. 

BA.5 is now the dominant strain of COVID. BA.5 is now the dominant strain of COVID. Omicron  subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 now account for roughly 90 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Aug. 5, just months after the strains were first reported in South Africa. BA.5 is behind about 86 percent of COVID-19 cases, and BA.4 makes up about 8 percent, the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. These strains appear to be more contagious than their predecessors, experts say. The U.S. is averaging about 117,000 reported cases of COVID-19 each day — all of which are caused by some version of the omicron variant. Recently, the FDA and its panel of experts voted in favor of introducing vaccines (to be used as boosters this fall) specifically designed to target the original coronavirus strain plus omicron and its subvariants, including BA.4 and BA.5. “As we move into the fall and winter, it is critical that we have safe and effective vaccine boosters that can provide protection against circulating and emerging variants to prevent the most severe consequences of COVID-19,” Peter Marks, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.

CDC recommends vaccinations for young children. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., recommended on June 18 that parents vaccinate their young children ages 6 months to 5 years, accepting the findings of the FDA and the CDC’s vaccine advisory committee. “I encourage parents and caregivers with questions to talk to their doctor, nurse or local pharmacist to learn more about the benefits of vaccinations and the importance of protecting their children by getting them vaccinated,” Walensky said in a statement.

The FDA on June 17 authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for that youngest age group and also authorized Moderna’s vaccine for youth ages 6 to 17. Distribution of pediatric vaccinations for the youngest children has started across the country, CDC officials say, and they are available at thousands of pediatric practices, pharmacies, federally qualified health centers, health departments and clinics. In May, health officials had recommended that kids 5 and older who have been vaccinated with Pfizer’s two-shot series get a booster.

​One in 4 older Americans likely experience long COVID symptoms. large new study from the CDC found that 1 in 5 COVID-19 survivors between the ages of 18 and 64 and 1 in 4 survivors 65 and older experienced at least one condition that might be attributable to a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection. Conditions were seen in a number of organ systems, including the heart, kidneys and lungs.

The most common conditions in both age groups were respiratory symptoms and musculoskeletal pain. Another key finding: Older adults in the study were at increased risk for developing neurologic conditions and mental health issues. Researchers also found that COVID-19 survivors have twice the risk for developing pulmonary embolism or respiratory conditions.​

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 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.

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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. In fact, 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 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
  • Mental health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders
  • 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)
  • Tuberculosis

What can you do to reduce your risk?

Get vaccinated and boosted. The FDA has officially approved two vaccines — a two-shot series from Pfizer-BioNTech and another two-shot series from Moderna. It has also issued an emergency use authorization (called an EUA) for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and another developed by Novavax.

​​All three vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Health officials are encouraging everyone 6 months of age and older to get vaccinated, including people who have had COVID-19 in the past. ​​

Adults 18 and older are eligible for booster shots months after their initial vaccine series to ramp up their protection against COVID, especially in the wake of the highly transmissible omicron variant; individuals 50 and older are eligible for two, as are younger people with certain immune-compromising conditions. People ages 5 and older who were vaccinated with Pfizer can also get a booster shot. ​​

Other ways to lower the likelihood of getting sick from COVID-19: Wear a high-quality face mask in public indoor settings (see the CDC’s new guidance on when one might be needed in your community); 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. ​​

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 approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the U.S. (nearly 600 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered). 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 and Moderna vaccines. Most of these patients who received care responded well to medicine and felt better quickly, the CDC says. ​​

Another uncommon event that has been linked to J&J’s vaccine is a rare but serious clotting disorder, called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. There have been 60 cases as of March 2022 out of about 14 million doses administered; nine people have died from it. Young women in their 30s and 40s are most at risk. After reviewing evidence of the adverse event, the CDC decided on Dec. 16, 2021, to recommend the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over J&J’s product; the FDA has since limited its authorization. J&J’s vaccine, however, is still available to those who are “unable or unwilling” to get vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna.

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

​The COVID-19 vaccines can help prevent a coronavirus infection, but importantly, they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, unvaccinated individuals 65 and older were about 4 times more likely to be hospitalized from a coronavirus infection than vaccinated people in April 2022, federal data shows.

​Despite these protections, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus — and preliminary data show that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines than previous variants — so it is still possible for fully vaccinated individuals to get COVID-19. This is called a “breakthrough infection.”

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​While fully vaccinated 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
  • 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 

​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? 

​Testing can help keep you and others around you safe. If you’re experiencing symptoms, test yourself. You should also take a test before an indoor event or gathering or after you were exposed to somebody with COVID-19. You can order free tests from the government at covidtest.gov.

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What should you do if you get sick?

​It’s important to stay home and separate yourself from others for at least five days if you test positive for COVID-19, even if you don’t develop symptoms and don’t feel sick — and you should wear a mask when around others for at least 10 days. 

If your symptoms persist after five days, you may need to isolate for longer. The CDC has isolation guidelines for specific scenarios, including for people who are immunocompromised. Stay hydrated, keep track of your symptoms, and keep in touch with your health care provider. You may qualify for a treatment that can help reduce your risk of developing complications. If you notice any of the following, seek immediate medical attention: trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, depending on skin tone.

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 and those at risk for being hospitalized. A few other therapies have FDA authorization, including monoclonal antibody treatments, which help to mimic the body’s immune system and fight off a viral infection.

​And on Dec. 22, the FDA authorized a first-of-its-kind treatment for COVID: A prescription pill from Pfizer that can help keep a coronavirus infection from causing serious illness in people who are most at risk for COVID complications. A similar pill from drug maker Merck received the OK from regulators soon after. Unlike other COVID treatments, which are administered in health care facilities by way of an injection or infusion, these oral medications are dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home.

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. In the U.S., the biggest variant of concern is omicron and its sibling strains. So far, the available vaccines still provide protection against the omicron variant, however, health officials are urging all adults and eligible youngsters to get a booster dose for added protection, since the highly transmissible strain has some vaccine-compromising abilities. Adults 50 and older can get a second booster.

​New research shows the mRNA boosters from Pfizer and Moderna are highly effective at preventing hospitalizations caused by an omicron infection, even though that protection wanes some four months after the third dose.

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 report published by the CDC found that as many as 1 in 4 older adults with COVID-19 had new or lingering symptoms. ​​

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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