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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

New omicron variant drives spike in U.S. infections, hospitalizations

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  • Unvaccinated older adults are nearly 50 times more likely to be hospitalized than their boosted peers. In December, unvaccinated adults aged 65 and older were 49 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than their fully vaccinated and boosted peers, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. Unvaccinated adults aged 50-64 were 44 times more likely to require hospitalization than boosted people in the same age group. Meanwhile, two federal studies released on Jan. 21 show just how crucial the boosters are in the fight against the highly contagious omicron variant. One multi-state analysis of nearly 90,000 hospitalizations found that the mRNA boosters have been about 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19-related hospitalizations during omicron. (They were about 94-percent effective at preventing hospitalizations during delta's dominance, according to the research, also from the CDC.) The booster shots also significantly reduced the likelihood of COVID-19-related emergency room and urgent care visits. A second study found that fully vaccinated and boosted individuals had the best protection against infection during delta and the first few weeks of omicron. Still, only 39 percent of Americans eligible for boosters have received one, CDC data shows.

  • Online order form for free at-home tests is now live. Americans are now able to request up to four at-home COVID tests per household from the federal government via the website covidtests.gov. The tests are free and so is the shipping, so no credit card is needed at the time of the order. In addition to sending these at-home tests to households throughout the country, the Biden administration has also announced plans to distribute free high-quality N95 masks, which the CDC says provides better protection than cloth masks against the virus that causes COVID-19. The masks can be picked up at pharmacies and health centers throughout the country beginning late next week. Administration officials say the program will be fully up and running by early February. Both moves come as the omicron variant continues to cause a surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. More than 700,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Jan. 17.

  • Vaccine mandate blocked for large employers; sustained for health care workers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 13 that the Biden administration does not have the authority to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on the nation's large employers. Many businesses have already implemented their own vaccine requirements and the high court's decision will not affect those rules. At the same time, the justices decided that the federal government does have the power to mandate vaccines for health care workers who work for providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. Virtually all the nation's health care providers and long-term care facilities receive funding from those programs. 

  • At-home tests covered for privately insured Americans. Private insurers on Jan. 15 began to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests for people on their plans. The tests, which must be authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), will either be free up front at stores and online retailers or through reimbursement (so keep your receipts), depending on the insurance company. Each person on the plan can receive up to eight home testing kits each month, meaning a family of four could get up to 32 monthly kits at no cost. Medicaid is also covering the FDA-authorized at-home test kits, but individuals on Medicare won't be able to get at-home tests reimbursed; consumers covered by Medicare Advantage should check with their plan. People without insurance and people on Medicare will be able to receive free tests (up to four per household) by mail from the government at covidtests.gov or by visiting health centers and clinics that stock them for the public. COVID tests ordered by health care providers will continue to be covered at no cost for Medicare beneficiaries. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has more information on the expanded testing plan here.

  • CDC says 12- to 17-year-olds should get Pfizer's COVID-19 booster. The CDC recommended on Jan. 5 that 12- to 15-year-olds should get a Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot at least five months after getting the first two shots of that COVID-19 vaccine. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky accepted the recommendation of the agency's advisory group, known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Walensky also accepted the advisory panel's recommendation that 16- and 17-year-olds should get the booster; previous language said 16- and 17-year-olds "may" get the third shot. Pfizer is currently the only COVID vaccine authorized for individuals 12 and older; the FDA expanded Pfizer's booster authorization for 12- to 15-year-olds that same week. The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are available in the U.S. to individuals 18 and older. The new guidance comes as cases of COVID-19 caused by the highly contagious omicron variant soar to record-breaking numbers.

  • CDC says Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients should boost at five months. People who were vaccinated for COVID-19 with either Pfizer-BioNTech's product or Moderna's vaccine should get their third booster shot five months after their second dose, instead of six, the CDC says. Director Rochelle Walensky said in a Jan. 4 statement that the new recommendation ensures that "people are able to get a boost of protection in the face of omicron and increasing cases across the country." For Johnson & Johnson recipients, the interval between the initial shot and a booster shot is two months. The CDC is also recommending that children ages 5 to 11 who are moderately or severely immunocompromised get a third dose of Pfizer's product — the only vaccine authorized for this age group — 28 days after their second shot.

  • FDA clears second pill to treat COVID. The FDA on Dec. 23 authorized a second pill that can help to keep a coronavirus infection from causing serious illness in people who are most at risk for COVID complications. The agency has authorized the medication manufactured by Merck. The authorization comes one day after regulators okayed the use of a pill produced by Pfizer. There have been a handful of lifesaving treatments throughout most of the pandemic for people who come down with a bad case of COVID-19, however they are only available by injection or IV and must be administered in a hospital or health facility. The new pills will be available at pharmacies with a prescription. Pfizer's pill, called Paxlovid, was authorized for high-risk individuals aged 12 and older. Known as Molnupiravir,  Merck's medication has been authorized for adults age 18 and older with early symptoms of COVID-19 who face the highest risk of hospitalization, including older people and those with underlying conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Clinical trials of both pills found that Pfizer's drug was about three times more effective in reducing hospitalizations and death compared to the Merck product. 

  • Pfizer, Moderna boosters protect against omicron. Moderna issued a statement on Dec. 20 that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine increases antibody levels against omicron, currently the fastest-spreading variant of the virus. The company said that according to its data, a third dose — which is half the amount used in the first two shots given to adults — increased antibody levels by 37 times. Moderna also said that if the full dose adults received in the first two shots were used for a booster, antibody levels would be raised 83-fold. Such a dose has been given to some immunocompromised people. Earlier this month, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a booster of their vaccine raised antibody levels 25-fold. Pfizer said the booster neutralized the virus at levels that compare with the protection two doses of the vaccines provide against the original strain of COVID-19. 
     

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,” 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

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What can you do to reduce your risk?

Get vaccinated and boosted. 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). However, the CDC now recommends the use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over J&J’s product. 

All three vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Health officials are encouraging everyone 5 and older to get vaccinated (shots for younger populations are still being evaluated), including people who have had COVID-19 in the past. Adults 18 and older are also eligible for booster shots to ramp up their protection against COVID, especially in the wake of the highly transmissible omicron variant.  People 12-17 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 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 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. 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. Fifty-four cases of the condition were confirmed as of August 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’s vaccines over J&J’s product. 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 are effective at preventing infection and serious illness, the CDC says. In fact, unvaccinated individuals are about 16 times more likely to be hospitalized from a coronavirus infection than vaccinated people, federal data show. And compared to individuals who are vaccinated and boosted, unvaccinated people aged 50 and older are upwards of 44 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.

However, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus — and preliminary data show that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines —  so it is still possible for 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.

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 

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? 

Testing can help keep you and others around you safe. The CDC says you should get tested for COVID-19 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 for at-home use. These so-called rapid antigen tests require a nasal swab and can deliver results in about 15 minutes. Many major retailers sell these tests; the federal government has also pledged to make them available for free in 2022. Learn more about them here.  

What should you do if you get sick?

It’s important to stay home and separate yourself from others for at least 10 days if you test positive for COVID-19, even if you don’t develop symptoms and don’t feel sick. 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. 

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. 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, although not all are proving effective against omicron. 

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 drugmaker 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 would be dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home.

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.

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, and these are changing rapidly with the emergence of the omicron variant. 

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 no more than one day before 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 domestic 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 one day before returning to the U.S.

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. In the U.S., the biggest variants of concern are omicron and delta.

So far, the available vaccines still provide protection against the circulating variants, however, health officials are urging all adults to get a booster dose for added protection against the highly transmissible omicron strain, which has some vaccine-compromising abilities. New research shows the mRNA boosters from Pfizer and Moderna are about 90 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations caused by an omicron infection. People aged 12 through 17 are also eligible for a booster.

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 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.