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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

High-risk individuals should practice precautions as COVID-19 circulates

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  • Another vaccine candidate is showing promising results in its phase 3 clinical trials. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca with Oxford University announced on Nov. 23 that its coronavirus vaccine was found to be about 70 percent, on average, effective at preventing COVID-19 when administered at two different dosing regimens in an interim analysis in its clinical trials in the U.K. and Brazil. The company is also testing the vaccine in clinical trials in the U.S., Japan, Russia, South Africa, Kenya and Latin America; the information from these trials is not yet available. 

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization (EUA) for Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in people 12 years of age and older who are at risk of progressing to more severe illness. 

  • The U.S. is shattering coronavirus records: Nearly 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded on Nov. 20 and again on Nov. 21, the highest number to date, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show, and more than 83,700 Americans are in the hospital with coronavirus infections, according to the COVID Tracking Project. To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 12.2 million Americans and has killed more than 256,000.

  • Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer/BioNTech have submitted their coronavirus vaccine candidate to the FDA for EUA on Nov. 20, which could make a vaccine available for high-risk individuals before the end of the year. The two-dose vaccine was found to be 95 percent effective against COVID-19 beginning 28 days after the first dose, the companies announced on Nov. 18, and efficacy was “consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics,” including in adults 65 years and older (where the vaccine was found to be 94 percent effective). No serious safety concerns were observed. Pfizer/BioNTech expect to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.
  • The CDC is urging Americans not to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday as coronavirus cases surge throughout much of the U.S. In an updated set of guidelines, posted Nov. 19, the agency also emphasized the importance of limiting in-person gatherings to those that have been living in your household for the last 14 days. Getting together with other friends and family, especially older adults and people with underlying health conditions who are at higher risk for severe illness, can increase your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19. 

  • You may soon be able to check whether you have COVID-19 at home, instead of heading to a clinic for a coronavirus test. The FDA on Nov. 17 authorized the first coronavirus test for at-home use, called the Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit. Using a self-collected nasal swab sample, it delivers results in 30 minutes or less and is available by prescription only for people 14 and older. The new test is different from previously authorized at-home tests, which required the user to send a sample to a lab for results. With the Lucira COVID-19 test, results can be read directly from a light-up display that shows whether a person is positive or negative for a coronavirus infection. “A test that can be fully administered entirely outside of a lab or healthcare setting has always been a major priority for the FDA to address the pandemic. Now, more Americans who may have COVID-19 will be able to take immediate action, based on their results, to protect themselves and those around them,” Jeff Shuren, M.D., director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement.

  • Early data from Moderna’s phase 3 clinical trial show its vaccine is nearly 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, the company said on Nov. 16. The biotech firm will apply for FDA authorization once the trial meets its final safety and efficacy endpoints. 

  • The CDC now says that cloth face masks help protect the wearer from coronavirus infections, in addition to helping protect others from being infected by the wearer. “The community benefit of masking for SARS-CoV-2 control is due to the combination of these effects; individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly,” according to the CDC. The CDC recommends, in particular, the use of multilayer cloth face masks without valves, which are shown to reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets and fine particles.

  • New research published in Nature found that restaurants, gyms, cafes and hotels can turn into hot spots for spreading coronavirus infections. Researchers analyzed data from mobile-phone apps to map how people moved between neighbors and various venues. Based on the data, the researchers projected that cases could be reduced significantly by limiting capacity in reopened venues.

  • The FDA has granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for bamlanivimab to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in non-hospitalized patients 12 and older. The monoclonal antibody therapy, which involves a laboratory-made protein that works by blocking the coronavirus from attaching to and entering cells, is made by Eli Lilly. Bamlanivimab has been shown in early testing to be effective in reducing COVID-related hospitalizations in high-risk patients including those 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions. The drug, which is not approved to treat hospitalized patients, is administered intravenously in a single dose. An EUA is an expedited approval issued to combat a health crisis; it is not the same as full FDA approval.

  • The FDA has approved the antiviral drug remdesivir for use in adult and pediatric patients 12 and older for the treatment of COVID-19 requiring hospitalization. This is the first drug that the FDA has approved to treat COVID-19. Previously, remdesivir was granted emergency use authorization (EUA), which is different from formal approval. The decision was supported by the agency’s analysis of data from three randomized, controlled clinical trials that included patients hospitalized with mild-to-severe COVID-19, the FDA said. However, in a break from the FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 20 recommended against the use of remdesivir to treat COVID-19 in hospitalized patients, saying “there is currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients.”

  • Death rates have declined since the start of the pandemic, but even still, COVID-19 poses a serious risk to hospitalized patients, according to a new report from the CDC. Compared to patients hospitalized with flu, COVID-19 patients had a higher risk for developing complications, and they were five times more likely to die from the illness. The report also found that Black and Hispanic patients developed some severe complications more frequently than white patients. 


What You Should Know About the Coronavirus

What can older adults do to reduce their risk of illness? 

Older adults and people with chronic underlying health conditions are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Severe illness means that the person with COVID-19 may require hospitalization, intensive care or help breathing to overcome the illness. There is no specific age at which risk increases. Rather, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says “risk increases steadily as you age” with the greatest risk for severe illness being among those age 85 and older. Ninety-five percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people who were 50 or older. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in people 65 and older, according to the latest demographic data available from the CDC.

Part of the reason risk increases with age is that people are more likely to have other health issues later in life, and underlying health conditions are a huge driver of complications that arise from COVID-19. A June report from the CDC found that hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 were six times as high for patients with chronic health conditions, compared to otherwise healthy individuals; deaths among this population were 12 times as high.

People of any age with the following conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the CDC:

  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies
  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease 
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Obesity (BMI of 30 or greater) 
  • Severe obesity (BMI of 40 or greater)
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Smoking
  • Immunocompromised state from solid organ transplantation 
  • Type 2 diabetes

People with the following conditions might be at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19:

  • Asthma (moderate to severe)
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Cystic fibrosis 
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia 
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight (BMI between 25 and 30)
  • Pregnancy
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissue)
  • Thalassemia (a blood disorder)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune-weakening medicines

The CDC has issued specific guidance for older adults and people at high risk for serious outcomes. Here’s what the agency recommends:

Avoid close contact with others

The best way to dodge a coronavirus infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are encouraged to limit interactions with people outside their household as much as possible and to take preventive measures when interactions do take place. Keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others; wash your hands often with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not an option); cover your coughs and sneezes; and disinfect high-touch surfaces often.

New guidance from the CDC defines close contact as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. People who come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19 are advised to quarantine for two weeks. 

The CDC also recommends wearing a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth in public to help slow the spread of the virus. Widespread use of face coverings can help to slow or stop the transmission of the virus in communities.

It’s a good idea to draft a plan in case you do become sick, experts say. Identify a designated sickroom in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from healthy ones. And locate aid organizations in your community that you can contact for help should you need it.

Older Americans and adults who routinely take medications should make sure they have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medicines on hand to cut down on the number of trips you need to make to the pharmacy. It’s also important to have over-the-counter medications in the house to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues and common medical supplies.

If you need to run out for necessities, the CDC has guidance on how to do so safely. On the list:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others while shopping and while in line.
  • Consider running your errands first thing in the morning or at the end of the day when fewer people are likely to be shopping. Some stores have special shopping hours for high-risk individuals. 
  • Disinfect your shopping cart or basket with disinfectant wipes.
  • Use hand sanitizer right away if you handle money, a card or a keypad.
  • Wash your hands when you get home.
  • When getting gasoline, use disinfectant wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them; use hand sanitizer immediately after.
  • Headed to the bank? Use drive-through banking services, automated teller machines (ATMs) or mobile banking apps for routine transactions that do not require face-to-face assistance as much as possible.

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What about travel? 

Before you make travel plans be sure to double check any rules pertaining to your destination and mode of transportation. Several countries and states have travel restrictions or guidelines in place that could affect your trip — the same goes for airlines. It’s also important to note that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19” and that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others” from the virus, the CDC says.

If you do decide to travel, the CDC encourages travelers to study the current situation ahead of their trip to “learn if coronavirus is spreading in your local area or in any of the places you are going.” 

For older adults and others at high risk for severe illness from a coronavirus infection, traveling can be dangerous, especially if you are in close contact with others. “People at higher risk for severe illness need to take extra precautions,” the CDC says. 

There are a number of questions you should ask if you are thinking about traveling; if you decide to go forward with travel plans, the CDC has steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting sick:

  • Avoid contact with others and keep a distance of at least 6 feet from people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Wear a cloth face covering in public settings. The CDC now recommends all transportation workers and riders wear masks on buses, planes, trains, etc.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.

Some travel-related activities are considered higher risk than others, including: going to a large social gathering like a wedding or funeral, attending a big event such as a concert, and traveling on a cruise ship or riverboat. If you participated in a higher-risk activity, you may want to get tested for COVID-19 afterward and take extra precautions to protect others around you. 

The CDC also recommends making sure that you are up to date with your routine vaccinations before you travel, including the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the seasonal flu vaccine. And do not travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

The CDC, U.S. State Department and World Health Organization (WHO) websites have up-to-date travel information.

How is the coronavirus spreading?

The virus is thought to spread mainly between people in close contact with one another by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the CDC. Those droplets can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or be inhaled into the lungs. Aerosol transmission (tiny exhaled particles that can linger in indoor air for longer durations and travel farther than 6 feet) can also play a role in the spread of the virus, which reinforces the importance of mask wearing, experts say.

According to the CDC,  “the virus may be spread in other ways,” including by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the agency maintains.

Finally, it’s important to note that COVID-19 can be spread by people before they start showing symptoms of COIVID-19 (presymptomatic) or even if they never develop symptoms (asymptomatic). 

What are the symptoms?

People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms that typically appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Here is the latest list of symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • 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

The CDC acknowledges this list is not exhaustive; skin rashes or lesions may also be a sign of the virus.

Health experts are asking anyone who experiences symptoms to call their health care provider or local health department for advice before seeking care to avoid spreading germs to others. Those who are feeling sick and are unsure of their symptoms can also check the CDC’s interactive guide for advice on appropriate medical care.  

However, if you develop emergency warning signs — pain or pressure in the chest, new disorientation or confusion, a blue tint in your face or lips, difficulty breathing, or an inability to wake or stay awake — get medical attention immediately, health officials warn. 

The CDC also has tips for what to do if you are diagnosed with COVID-19.

What do we know about minority populations? 

Communities of color are disproportionately being affected by the virus and the illness it causes.

Black Americans,  and American Indians/Alaska Natives and Hispanics, for example, are about five times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 as their white counterparts, according to the CDC. 

What’s more, these populations are experiencing higher rates of death from the coronavirus. 

Experts point to several factors to explain these troubling trends. Minority populations are more likely to have jobs that put them at risk for exposure to the virus and chronic conditions that increase the likelihood of COVID-19 complications. They also have more barriers when it comes to accessing health care and testing, and are more likely to experience discrimination that puts them at increased risk for COVID-19, the CDC points out.

How is it treated?

Researchers are continuing to study potential and effective treatments for COVID-19. Several promising developments have taken place, including the Oct. 22 approval for the antiviral drug remdesivir for hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Remdesivir is the first — and so far, only — treatment for COVID-19 to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Additionally, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for several therapies, including convalescent plasma in some hospitalized patients. This involves injecting a component of blood that contains antibodies from people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection into someone currently sick with COVID-19.

“The FDA determined that it is reasonable to believe that COVID-19 convalescent plasma may be effective in lessening the severity or shortening the length of COVID-19 illness in some hospitalized patients,” the agency said in a statement on the EUA. The FDA added that it also “determined that the known and potential benefits of the product, when used to treat COVID-19, outweigh the known and potential risks.”

Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab also received an EUA to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in non-hospitalized patients at high risk of severe disease, including people 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions. The monoclonal antibody therapy is designed to block the coronavirus from attaching to and entering cells. Bamlanivimab, which is administered intravenously in a single dose, has been shown in early testing to be effective in reducing COVID-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits. The drug is not approved to treat hospitalized patients.

And on Nov. 21, Regeneron’s COVID-19 monoclonal antibody cocktail (casirivimab and imdevimab) received FDA authorization for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in people 12 years of age and older who are at risk of progressing to more severe illness. In a clinical trial of patients with COVID-19, the two drugs, when administered together, were shown to reduce COVID-19-related hospitalization or emergency room visits, the FDA says. The safety and effectiveness of the treatment continues to be evaluated.

Finally, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Sept. 2 issued new guidelines that strongly recommend the use of inexpensive and common corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone and dexamethasone for the treatment of patients “with severe and critical COVID-19.” The guidelines come after an analysis of several different clinical trials found that corticosteroids cut the risk of death in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The data was published Sept. 2 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The new guidelines emphasize that steroids should not be used to treat patients with mild symptoms of the disease. 

What are prospects for a vaccine?

Several clinical trials testing the safety and effectiveness of potential vaccine candidates are underway, and four promising candidates are in phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S.: a vaccine from Moderna and the National Institutes of Health (NIH); one from BioNTech and Pfizer; and one from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford; and another from Johnson & Johnson. A phase 3 clinical trial is when researchers study the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine candidates against a placebo in a large population.

Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have reported that their vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 in tens of thousands of volunteers enrolled in their trials. Pfizer is seeking FDA authorization for its vaccine; Moderna has said it will apply for authorization as soon as the trial meets its endpoints. And on Nov. 23, AstraZeneca said its vaccine candidate is about 70 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 when two different dosing regimens were tested in phase 3 clinical trials in the U.K. and Brazil. The announcement was based on an interim analysis; data from the U.S. clinical trials is still unknown.

It’s hard to pinpoint when a vaccine will get the go-ahead from the FDA — a rigorous review process by the agency and an outside committee is still required. That said, most health experts say it’s reasonable to expect an approved vaccine by the end of 2020 or early in 2021.

The U.S. government, through its Operation Warp Speed project, has so far invested billions of dollars to ensure that if and when a vaccine is approved, hundreds of millions of doses will be readily available to the public. However, that does not mean everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one immediately. In a mid-September hearing before a Senate committee, CDC Director Robert Redfield predicted it will take six to nine months to get the public vaccinated. Public health experts and government leaders are working on distribution and prioritization plans; experts predict older Americans will be among some of the first to get the vaccine. 

Will a flu shot provide protection?

There is no evidence that the flu shot or the pneumococcal vaccination will provide any protection from the coronavirus. Both, however, will increase your chances of staying healthy and out of the hospital during the pandemic, which is one reason why public health experts are strongly encouraging that Americans get their flu shots this fall.

Another reason? It is possible to get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, since the two illnesses are caused by two different viruses, and that would likely mean “the severity of respiratory failure would be greater,” says Michael Matthay, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.    

And it’s important to keep in mind that, like COVID-19, the flu can be deadly. The CDC estimates that the flu was responsible for 34,200 deaths in the 2018-19 season.

Need a flu shot this year? Pharmacies, doctors’ offices and health departments around the country are offering them this year, and experts say mid-September through October is the best time to get vaccinated

How can I take care of a sick friend?

Health officials stress that it’s important to take care of sick friends and neighbors in the community — and there’s a way to do so safely. If you are taking food to a neighbor, consider leaving it at the door. Since COVID-19 is most likely passed by respiratory droplets, this will eliminate the chance of the virus spreading.

If you are caring for someone who has COVID-19, keep a safe distance. Wash your hands often, wipe down high-touch surfaces and remind the person who is sick to wear a face mask. You should wear a face mask too. Offer to help with groceries and errands, if possible. 

Finally: Watch for warning signs of serious illness. Call the doctor if the person’s condition worsens, and seek immediate medical attention if they have difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, an inability to wake or stay awake, or blueish lips or face. 

“I think it is great we step up to help each other, and there are some commonsense precautions to protect you,"  CDC official Nancy Messonnier told AARP in a tele-town hall event.

What if a loved one is in a nursing home?

Adults living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities are at high risk for severe sickness if infected with the coronavirus, which is why many facilities across the country are continuing to limit visitation. (You can check the status of nursing home visits in your state on

If you have a loved one in a nursing home or long-term care facility, visit with them virtually: Stay in touch through videoconferencing, emails and phone calls. Send pictures or letters or drop off a care package. (Not all facilities may allow this, so check first.)

Also: Identify a point of contact on staff for when you have questions and concerns. Facilities are required by the federal government to alert residents, their families and the CDC within 12 hours if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed. 

AARP has a list of six key questions to ask about circumstances at your loved one’s nursing home and questions for assisted living facilities — plus extensive coverage on the crisis in nursing homes. You can also track coronavirus cases and deaths in specific nursing homes on a website that the federal government unveiled on June 4. AARP is also keeping track of this data. 

What is the advice on face masks?

The CDC is encouraging all Americans to wear cloth face masks or homemade face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household — especially in situations when it’s difficult to maintain physical distancing — in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Masks with one-way valves or vents that allow exhaled air to be expelled through holes in the material are not recommended, since they can facilitate in the spread of the virus. The same goes for surgical masks and N95 respirators, which should be reserved for health care professionals. According to the CDC, cloth face masks both help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by wearers and help protect wearers from infections.

AARP has a tutorial on how to make a face mask at home.

What, exactly, is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses, named for their crownlike shape, are a large family of viruses that are common in many species of animals. There are types of human coronaviruses, too, including some common ones that cause cold-like symptoms. 

The virus at the center of the latest outbreak is being referred to as a novel (new) coronavirus, since it’s something that health officials have not seen before.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments in the global outbreak. Check back regularly.

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