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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

As delta variant fuels U.S. cases among unvaccinated, omicron looms

Latest Updates

  • Pandemic sent blood pressure rates rising. Data from nearly half a million U.S. adults shows that blood pressure levels rose for both men and women between April and December 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. The study, published in the journal Circulation, also found that women and older adults had the highest blood pressure measures during this time. “At the start of the pandemic, most people were not taking good care of themselves. Increases in blood pressure were likely related to changes in eating habits, increased alcohol consumption, less physical activity, decreased medication adherence, more emotional stress and poor sleep,” lead study author Luke J. Laffin, M.D., co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, said in a statement. “And we know that even small rises in blood pressure increase one’s risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events.” Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, which is a leading cause of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure has also been linked to worsening cognitive function. Lifestyle modifications, such as reducing sodium intake and exercising regularly, can lower blood pressure — as can medication. 

  • Insurers to pay for at-home tests. As part of a sweeping plan to battle COVID-19 this winter, the White House says private insurance companies will be required to pay for rapid, over-the-counter at-home testing. About 150 million Americans with commercial coverage will be eligible to get the cost of at-home tests reimbursed by their insurers, starting as soon as mid-January. For people without private insurance, the administration plans to distribute tests to community health centers and rural clinics. Officials also say they plan to quadruple the supply of rapid at-home tests. What's more, the winter COVID-19 plan contains a full-court press to get people booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, including a collaboration between the administration and AARP, with AARP-sponsored town halls, AARP helping provide rides to older adults to get their booster shots and other local events designed to spread the word about the importance of boosters. The outreach effort comes with a vaccine assistance hotline: 1-800-232-0233. Medicare also plans to send its 63 million members notices encouraging them to get boosters. Also of importance: The plan extends until March 18 the mask requirement for people traveling on airplanes, trains and public transportation.

  • First cases of omicron detected in U.S. Health officials have identified in California the first case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant, which was classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 26. The individual was a fully vaccinated traveler who returned to the U.S. from South Africa, where the variant was first identified. U.S. health officials have since identified other omicron cases in the country. WHO health officials say the variant has  “several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves,” although it’s not yet clear whether the variant spreads easier than delta or causes more severe disease than other versions of the virus. It’s also unclear how effective vaccines will be against omicron. WHO says studies are underway to shed light on these questions. In the meantime, experts recommend vaccines, masking in public, frequent handwashing and physical distancing to curb the spread of COVID.
  • CDC says all adults should boost. The emergence of omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, has led CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to update the agency's recommendations on vaccine boosters. The CDC had already said that all adults over age 50 should get a booster shot when they are eligible (six months after the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and two months after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot) and that younger adults may also get a shot. Now Walensky says all adults 18 and older should get a booster dose. In a statement, Walensky pointed to early data from South Africa that suggest the omicron variant shows increased transmissibility and that scientists worldwide are investigating how effective the current vaccines are expected to be against this latest virus mutation. "I also want to encourage people to get a COVID-19 test if they are sick," Walensky said. "Increased testing will help us identify omicron quickly."

  • New treatments for COVID could be here soon. Drugmaker Pfizer has asked the FDA to authorize its experimental pill to treat COVID-19 in people who are at high risk for developing serious illness from a coronavirus infection. Pfizer’s pill, called Paxlovid, was shown in clinical trials to reduce risk of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths by 89 percent in high-risk adults, the company said in a news release. Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics have also developed an antiviral pill, called molnupiravir, to treat COVID and are seeking FDA authorization. The FDA’s advisory panel reviewed Merck’s data on Nov. 30 and voted in favor of bringing it to market. If cleared, these pills would be the first to treat COVID-19; other FDA-approved or authorized treatments require an injection or infusion. 

  • CDC recommends COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has endorsed a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to allow children ages 5 to 11 get vaccinated against COVID-19 with Pfizer-BioNTech’s product, which was authorized by the FDA on Oct. 29. This means that health care providers and pharmacists can start administering the vaccine to the newly eligible population — an estimated 28 million kids. Pfizer’s vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds is a two-shot regimen that is one-third the dose given to individuals age 12 and up. COVID vaccines for children under 5 are still being studied. Meanwhile, vaccine-maker Moderna has requested FDA authorization for its vaccine for 12- to 17-year-olds; the FDA recently told the company it needs more time — probably until January — to review the data. While children tend to fare better than adults when it comes to COVID-19, they are not immune to the disease. During a six-week period from late June to mid-August, COVID-19 hospitalizations among children and adolescents increased fivefold, according to CDC data.

  • Vaccines offer greater protection against COVID than previous infection. A new report from the CDC found that unvaccinated individuals were 5.49 times as likely to test positive for a coronavirus infection as those who had been vaccinated within the past three to six months — even if they recently had COVID-19. The study looked at more than 7,000 people across 9 states who were hospitalized with COVID-like illness. "We now have additional evidence that reaffirms the importance of COVID-19 vaccines, even if you have had prior infection," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "This study adds more to the body of knowledge demonstrating the protection of vaccines against severe disease from COVID-19."

  • Fourth shot possible for immunocompromised. The CDC says people over age 18 who are "moderately to severely immunocompromised" and have already gotten a third dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine may get a fourth shot of either of those vaccines or the Johnson & Johnson product. The agency says these fourth shots can be administered at least six months after their third Pfizer or Moderna shot — February 2022 at the earliest. CDC considers this fourth shot a booster and those getting this additional shot will get a dose that is half the volume of the first shots.

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, about 95 percent 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. 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). Full approval for these vaccines may be forthcoming.

All three vaccines are safe and effective at preventing infection and 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 delta variant and the new and still mysterious omicron variant.

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., and about 50 cases of a clotting disorder following the J&J vaccine have been recorded, according to the CDC. Health officials are also monitoring reports of Guillain-Barré Syndrome in people who have received the J&J shot, and myocarditis or pericarditis in some younger adults after vaccination with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

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 almost 6 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, and they're about 14 times more likely to die from a coronavirus infection, federal data show.   

However, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus, 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. 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.

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.

Antiviral pills that treat COVID-19 could be here soon. Drugmakers Pfizer and Merck have asked the FDA to authorize their products, which are designed to prevent hospitalization and death in people who are most at risk for developing a serious case of COVID-19. 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. 

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.

So far, the available vaccines still provide protection against the circulating variants, including against delta — the dominant variant in the U.S. that is responsible for about 99 percent of new COVID-19 cases. Experts are still studying the effectiveness of our tools against the latest variant of concern, omicron.

However, the more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. And it may be that one day, a new variant pops up with the ability to evade the current tools we have to fight it. The best way to prevent this scenario, health experts say, is to get vaccinated and slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

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.