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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

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

Latest Updates

Vaccination, Paxlovid may decrease long COVID risk. 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 also 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.

At-home test checks for COVID and flu. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized an over-the-counter at-home test that can detect both influenza A and B (also known as flu) and COVID-19 in about 30 minutes with a nasal swab. The Lucira COVID-19 & Flu Test is the first of its kind and is a "major milestone in bringing greater consumer access to diagnostic tests that can be performed entirely at home," said Jeff Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

CDC adds COVID vaccines to recommended schedule for adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added the COVID-19 vaccines to its recommended vaccine schedule for adults and children. The updated schedule, published Feb. 10 in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also reflects changes in influenza vaccine recommendations. Older adults should receive what’s often referred to as a high-dose flu shot. You can find the updated vaccine schedule for adults on the CDC’s website. 

COVID emergency to end. The COVID-19 public health emergency will end on May 11, bringing an official end to the coronavirus pandemic. For people with Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance, many of the benefits in effect during the three years of the health crisis will remain in place. In a year-end spending bill passed in December, Congress extended the expansion of some Medicare telehealth services until the end of 2024. Depending on their coverage, Medicare beneficiaries and people with private health insurance may incur some out-of-pocket costs for COVID tests and certain treatments associated with the illness.

Bivalent boosters are effective against the latest circulating variants. The COVID-19 boosters formulated to target the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants circulating in the summer and fall are effective at preventing mild illness caused by some of the newer variants, including XBB.1.5, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. A new report from the CDC found that so-called bivalent boosters cut the risk of a symptomatic infection nearly in half in adults ages 18 to 49. The boosters were 40 percent effective against symptoms from a coronavirus infection among individuals 50 to 64 years old, and 43 percent effective among those 65 and older.

Americans can still order free at-home COVID tests from the government. The federal government restarted its free at-home testing program. Every U.S. household can order four free at-home COVID-19 tests at; shipping is also free.

Bivalent vaccines available for kids as young as 6 months. Children as young as 6 months old who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are eligible to receive an updated bivalent booster shot from Pfizer and Moderna. The bivalent vaccines target some of the more recently circulating strains of the coronavirus. These shots have been available to adults since September.

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 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 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 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. 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: ​​

  • 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. The FDA also 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 booster at least two months after their last 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 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 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, 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. 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, and they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. Unvaccinated individuals are 16 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than their vaccinated peers who are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, federal data from December 2022 shows. Death rates are also much 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​
  • Cough​
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • ​Fatigue​
  • Muscle or body aches
  • ​Headache​
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • ​Sore throat​
  • Congestion or runny nose​
  • Nausea or vomiting​
  • Diarrhea ​​

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. ​​


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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. ​

​ Most health insurers cover the cost of at-home tests for plan participants. Medicare beneficiaries can receive up to eight over-the-counter tests each month, free of charge.

What should you do if you get sick?​​

If your test is positive, talk to your doctor right away about treatments.

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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 for at least 10 days, you should wear a mask when around others.

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; confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, depending on skin tone.. ​​

Are there treatments?​​

Yes. A few medications are available to treat COVID-19, though this list changes as new variants emerge. With the current batch of omicron subvariants circulating, three treatments are available to patients in the U.S.: 

  • Paxlovid, a prescription oral antiviral pill
  • Veklury (remdesivir), an antiviral medication given by IV
  • Lagevrio (molnupiravir), a prescription oral antiviral pill 

If you test positive for COVID-19, talk to your doctor right away about treatment options. These medications work better the sooner you start them. 

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 descendants. ​​​

Pfizer and Moderna have boosters that better target omicron. Health officials recommend that all fully vaccinated individuals get an omicron-specific booster to help prevent severe illness from a coronavirus infection. 

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.


AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.


AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.