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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
Paxlovid gets full FDA approval (May 25). The oral antiviral pill Paxlovid received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 25 for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19. The prescription medication, from drugmaker Pfizer, was first made available under emergency use authorization in December 2021. It’s recommended for people at high risk of severe illness from a coronavirus infection, including older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions.
Johnson & Johnson vaccine no longer available (May 17). The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine is no longer available in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government supply of that coronavirus vaccine expired on May 7. The agency has told providers to dispose of any stock they have of that vaccine. The CDC is also advising Americans 18 years old and older who have been vaccinated with the J&J product to now get a dose of the bivalent vaccine — either the Pfizer or the Moderna product. The J&J vaccine has been the least used of the coronavirus vaccines available in the U.S. According to CDC data, of the more than 270 million Americans who have received a coronavirus vaccine, 19 million got the J&J product.
Americans can still order more free at-home COVID tests (May 16). The public health emergency has ended, making over-the-counter tests more costly for many, but Americans can still order free COVID-19 tests from the federal government through the end of May. If you have not yet ordered your two rounds of free at-home tests, visit covid.gov/tests.
COVID is fourth-leading cause of death for 2022 (May 5). The three leading causes of death for Americans during 2022 were heart disease, cancer and unintentional injury, new provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. COVID-19, which was the third-leading cause of death in both 2020 and 2021, trailed behind in fourth due to “the large decrease in COVID-19–associated deaths,” the report’s authors write. More than 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in 2020, and more than 90 percent of deaths have been among people 50 and older.
WHO says COVID-19 pandemic is no longer an emergency (May 5). The World Health Organization on May 5 announced that while COVID-19 is still a threat, it is no longer a global emergency. Some countries are experiencing higher cases than others, and experts are keeping a close eye on a new strain of omicron that is spreading in many areas. "The worst thing any country could do now is to use this news as a reason to let down its guard, to dismantle the systems it has built, or to send the message to its people that COVID-19 is nothing to worry about," WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news conference. In the U.S., reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline from winter’s peak, federal data shows. Still, more than 1,000 deaths are being recorded each week.
Health officials support second updated booster (April 19). U.S. health officials have given the green light for people age 65 and older and those with compromised immune systems to receive a second bivalent vaccine. Older adults are now eligible to get a second booster at least four months after receiving their first omicron-specific shot. People with weakened immune systems are eligible for a second booster two months after their initial one. And after that, those with severely compromised immune systems are eligible for additional boosters at their health care provider’s discretion. The additional boosters continue to be free of charge. Health officials have also decided to retire the original Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna monovalent mRNA vaccines in favor of the updated formula used to target omicron subvariants as well as the original coronavirus.
Vaccination, Paxlovid may decrease long COVID risk (March 23). A new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that individuals who had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine were 40 percent less likely to develop long COVID than unvaccinated individuals. Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that using Paxlovid, the brand name for the medication nirmatrelvir, within five days of a positive coronavirus test was associated with a decreased risk for long COVID, regardless of vaccination status and history of prior infection. “These findings suggest that the salutary benefit of nirmatrelvir may extend to the post–acute phase of COVID-19,” the authors wrote.
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. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and another developed by Novavax.
All four 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.
Once you are vaccinated, you should get boosted. Everyone ages 6 months and up is eligible for a bivalent booster shot, and older adults and people who are immunocompromised can get a second.
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 guidance on when one might be needed in your community), 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.
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. 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.
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 preliminary data shows that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines than previous variants — so it is possible for fully vaccinated individuals to get COVID-19. This is called a breakthrough infection.
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.