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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

The majority of older adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Latest Updates

  • Government issues reminder that COVID-19 vaccines are free to all patients. Addressing concerns over surprise billing, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra reminded health care providers and insurers that patients should not pay for COVID-19 vaccines, nor should they pay any fees associated with administering the vaccine. “COVID-19 vaccines and their administration are free for any individual living in the United States, regardless of their insurance or immigration status,” Becerra’s notice says. And if providers have mistakenly billed patients, that money should be “immediately returned.” Similarly, group health plans and health insurers are required to cover diagnostic testing, which the notice says is “a key priority as we try to catch COVID-19 cases early and prevent their spread.” 

  • COVID-19 deaths declining significantly among older adults. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that older adults have experienced the biggest decreases in COVID-19 infections, emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths than younger Americans. Before vaccines were available, older adults were hit hardest by COVID-19 than any other age demographic — 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths were in adults 50-plus. Now, this group has the highest vaccination coverage; 86.4 percent of adults 65 and older have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This good news “demonstrates the potential impact of increasing population-level vaccination coverage,” the report says. So far, nearly 64 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Moderna files for official federal approval, beyond ‘emergency use.’ Vaccine-maker Moderna announced on June 1 that it plans to seek official approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine. So far, the vaccine has been available to adults 18 and older under the agency’s emergency use authorization (EUA), which was granted in December of 2020. Pfizer-BioNTech, which also makes a two-dose mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, filed for full FDA approval last month. The priority review process for both vaccines is expected to take several months. 

  • U.S. sees fewer cases of COVID-19 as more Americans get vaccinated. COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. continue to drop, according to data updated June 4 from the CDC. The seven-day moving average of daily new cases (14,349) decreased by about 35 percent compared with the prior week’s average (22,139). And compared with the pandemic’s highest peak (on Jan. 8, 2021, with 252,932 new cases of COVID-19), the current seven-day average is down by more than 94 percent. Deaths are down by about 21 percent compared with the previous seven-day moving average. A new CDC study, however, found hospitalization rates among adolescents ages 12 to 17 increased during March and April. The CDC says this trend reinforces “the importance of continued prevention strategies, including vaccination and the correct and consistent use of masks in those who are not yet fully vaccinated.”

  • Experts continue to see lingering symptoms in people with past coronavirus infections. A new analysis published in JAMA Network Open highlights just how common new or persisting symptoms are in people recovering from COVID-19.  Across 45 studies, more than 70 percent of COVID-19 patients, most of whom were hospitalized for the illness, reported a range of symptoms — 84 in total — months after their initial diagnosis. Shortness of breath, fatigue and sleep disorders were among the most commonly reported symptoms. Anxiety and depression were also up there. What’s more, previous research has found that long-haul symptoms are common in people who had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. “With millions of individuals experiencing COVID-19 infection, persistent symptoms are a burden on individual patients and their families as well as on outpatient care, public health, and the economy,” the report’s authors write.

  • Breakthrough cases are still rare among the fully vaccinated. As of April 30, approximately 101 million people in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and out of them, 10,262 breakthrough infections were reported, a CDC report shows. Twenty-seven percent of the breakthrough cases were asymptomatic; 10 percent required hospitalization, and 2 percent resulted in death. “Even though FDA-authorized vaccines are highly effective, breakthrough cases are expected, especially before population immunity reaches sufficient levels to further decrease transmission,” the report’s authors write. “However, vaccine breakthrough infections occur in only a small fraction of all vaccinated persons and account for a small percentage of all COVID-19 cases. The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that will be prevented among vaccinated persons will far exceed the number of vaccine breakthrough cases.” 

  • New data emphasize effectiveness of vaccines. Two recent reports released by the CDC show the two-dose mRNA vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are highly effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in real-world settings.  A large study looking at a diverse population of fully vaccinated health care workers found the two-dose regimen reduced the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 by 94 percent. In a separate study, researchers found the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines were 94 percent effective against COVID-19 hospitalization among fully vaccinated adults 65 years and older.

  • Vaccinated Americans can largely discard their masks. The CDC now recommends that people who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 do not have to wear masks outdoors — even in crowds — or indoors, and, they do not have to maintain social distancing. People are considered fully immunized two weeks after they have received either the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine or the single shot of the Johnson & Johnson product. People whose immune systems are compromised should consult with their doctor before giving up their mask. And it’s important to note that masks are still required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, as well as in transportation hubs. People who have not been vaccinated should continue to wear a mask both outdoors and indoors. Anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms should resume wearing a mask and get tested immediately.

  • CDC updates guidance on how COVID-19 spreads. Health officials have updated their guidance on how the coronavirus spreads, placing more of an emphasis on airborne transmission. The agency says the illness can spread “when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus.” These can then be breathed in by other people “or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth,” the CDC says. In some cases, these particles and droplets may contaminate surfaces and transfer by touch. Still, the best ways to avoid COVID-19 are to get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands often, avoid crowded and poorly ventilated indoor spaces and stay at least 6 feet away from others, the agency maintains.

What You Should Know About the Coronavirus

Answers to the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19.

Are older adults at higher 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. 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.

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 2020 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 with the following conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the CDC says:

  • 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
  • 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)

What can older adults do to reduce their risk? 

Get vaccinated

The FDA has issued emergency use authorization (EUA) for three COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (J&J). All three vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease, studies show.

People who have been fully vaccinated — which is two weeks after the single dose J&J shot, or two weeks after the second shot of the two-dose vaccines — can start to ease up on some of the precautions we’ve been practicing this past year. For example, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a mask or stay 6 feet apart from others, except when required by federal or local regulations, or by business or workplace rules.  Vaccinated individuals can also travel more freely. For example, domestic trips don’t need to be followed by testing and quarantining. 

Avoid crowds and close contact with others

If you haven’t been vaccinated, the best way to dodge a coronavirus infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Limit interactions with people outside your household as much as possible, keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others and wash your hands often with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not an option).

Wear a mask

Also if you are not fully vaccinated: The CDC recommends wearing face masks in indoor settings (other than your own home, as long as no one is sick with the virus) and outdoors when a minimum physical distance of 6 feet from others cannot be maintained. Face masks help protect the wearer from coronavirus infection, in addition to helping protect others from being infected by the wearer.

Wearing a surgical mask under a cloth mask significantly improves protection from the coronavirus by creating a tighter fit around the face, a CDC study published Feb. 10 found. The study showed that when a cloth mask was worn over a surgical mask, 92.5 percent of cough particles were blocked, compared to only about 42 percent from a cloth or surgical mask alone. 

The CDC study also revealed that the performance of surgical masks can be improved by knotting ear loop strings where they meet the mask and folding in and flattening mask edges. The researchers said their results demonstrate the importance of ensuring a mask fits well, with no gaps around the edges.

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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. Many countries and states have travel restrictions or guidelines in place that could affect your trip — the same goes for airlines. AARP has a list of coronavirus restrictions in every state. Plus, the CDC has country-specific travel recommendations based on COVID-19 risk levels. 

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 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.

Travel guidance for fully vaccinated people. Fully vaccinated people can travel “at low risk to themselves,” health officials say, but they should still wear masks, avoid crowds, socially distance and wash their hands frequently. 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 three to five days after returning. People are fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their second dose of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Travel guidance for unvaccinated people.
 The CDC recommends delaying 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 three days before returning to the U.S.

Testing and quarantining are also advised upon return. AARP has information about specific travel advisories, and airline change fees, as well as tips on how to stay safe when you travel.

How is the coronavirus spreading?

In updated guidance, the CDC says COVID-19 spreads “when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus” and another person inhales them, which is why experts warn against congregating in poorly ventilated spaces. These droplets and particles can also land on a person’s eyes, nose or mouth and “in some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch.”

However, health experts are less focused on surface transmission, compared to the first few months of the pandemic, since “current evidence strongly suggests transmission from contaminated surfaces does not contribute substantially to new infections,” the CDC says. Cleaning surfaces with soap or detergent is enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus in most situations.

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). A study published Jan. 7 in JAMA Network Open found that people without symptoms account for about 59 percent of all COVID-19 transmission. The study underscores why it’s important to wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid crowds and take other precautions, whether you have symptoms or not.

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; pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds; 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.

How is COVID-19 treated?

Researchers are continuing to study potential treatments for COVID-19, and several promising developments have taken place. Here are some of the treatment options:

Remdesivir: Remdesivir is the first — and so far, only — treatment for COVID-19 to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Research shows it can help hospitalized COVID-19 patients recover faster.

Dexamethasone and other corticosteroids: The World Health Organization (WHO) on Sept. 2 issued new 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.

Bamlanivimab and etesevimab: This therapy, from drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, combines two monoclonal antibody drugs. The combination received an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA on Feb. 9 to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in patients at high risk of severe disease, including people 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions. Bamlanivimab is no longer authorized as a treatment when used on its own. The drugs are not approved to treat hospitalized patients or those who require oxygen.

Casirivimab and imdevimab: Another antibody treatment, Regeneron's COVID-19 monoclonal antibody cocktail received an EUA on Nov. 21 for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in non-hospitalized patients who are at high risk of progressing to more severe illness, including people 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions.

Convalescent plasma: Blood plasma donated by individuals who have recovered from coronavirus infection contains antibodies that may speed recovery when administered to patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The FDA granted an EUA for convalescent plasma on Aug. 23. A study published Jan. 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that giving plasma infusions to patients 65 and older experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms within a few days of symptom onset significantly reduced the need for oxygen support.

What should I know about the vaccines?

The FDA has issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for three vaccines: from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

All three vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe disease, studies show, and adverse reactions have been extremely rare.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines call for two doses, spaced 21 days (Pfizer) or 28 days (Moderna) apart. However, if that is not feasible, the CDC has said the doses may be spaced up to six weeks apart.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot. On April 23, health officials added a warning to this vaccine’s fact sheet following reports of a rare but serious type of blood clot experienced by a small number of people who had received the J&J vaccine. The FDA and CDC reviewed 15 reported cases of the blood clotting disorder, all in women ages 18 to 59 who had received the J&J vaccine and determined the vaccine’s benefits outweigh any known risks.

The new warning advises individuals to seek medical attention right away if they experience any of these symptoms after receiving the J&J vaccine: chest pain; leg swelling; persistent abdominal pain; severe or persistent headaches or blurred vision; or easy bruising or tiny blood spots under the skin beyond the site of the injection. Among the known cases, these symptoms occurred six to 15 days after vaccination, setting them apart from the expected vaccine side effects. It also warns health care providers that heparin — a drug commonly used to break up clots — may be harmful in patients with this rare type of clot.

It’s common to experience temporary side effects after getting the vaccine, such as soreness in the arm, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, nausea, fever or chills. They are a sign that the vaccine is working.

You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or after your second dose of the two-dose vaccines.

the covid vaccine in your state

The latest on how to get the vaccine.

What should I know about coronavirus variants?

Public health officials have identified several new strains of the coronavirus, some of which are more contagious, worrying experts who say they could lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases among people who have not been vaccinated. Another concern experts have is that the vaccines won’t protect against a new variant that emerges.

One, known as B.1.1.7. (or Alpha), was first discovered in the United Kingdom but is now circulating in more than 45 countries, including the United States where it is now the most common variant. Studies indicate it may carry an increased risk of death, however early data indicate the current COVID-19 vaccines protect against severe disease caused by B.1.1.7.

Other variants of concern include one first discovered in South Africa (B.1.351, or Beta), another first found in Brazil (P.1, or Gamma), and a third (B.1.617.2, or Delta) identified in India. The CDC is also tracking two variants that are spreading in California and New York City, among others.

Early studies indicate that the current COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against some of those strains, although the vaccines would still provide some protection.

The COVID-19 vaccine makers have already announced that they are working to modify their vaccines — and possibly to create booster shots — to better protect against variants.

Do some people have lingering symptoms?

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.

Experts encourage COVID-19 patients experiencing continuing symptoms to seek care from a medical provider. Many U.S. hospitals have set up special clinics for survivors and have already learned a lot about the best ways to help.

What should I know about testing?

The CDC says you should consider getting a COVID-19 test if:

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • You have had close contact (within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more) with someone with confirmed COVID-19. (Fully vaccinated people with no COVID-19 symptoms and people who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 3 months do not need to be tested following an exposure.)
  • You have taken part in activities that put you at higher risk for COVID-19, such as travel, attending large social or mass gatherings, or being in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor settings.
  • You have been asked to get tested by a healthcare provider or state or local health department.

The most accurate COVID-19 tests use a method called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. PCR tests require your sample to be sent to a lab, so it can take a few days to get results. 

The FDA has also given emergency use authorization to rapid tests that use what’s called antigen technology. Antigen tests are faster because samples don’t have to be sent out to a lab, but studies show they are less accurate, especially if you are asymptomatic. 

The FDA has also given the green light to five at-home COVID-19 tests that deliver results in real time at home, including four that will be sold over the counter without a doctor's prescription. Some are already available.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments. Check back regularly.

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