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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

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

Latest Updates

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  • CDC strengthens booster recommendation for older Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) upgraded its guidance to older Americans and those age 12 and older who are immunocompromised from saying that these individuals “may” get a second COVID-19 vaccine booster shot to saying they “should” get a fourth dose. “Over the past month we have seen steady increases in cases, with a steep and substantial increase in hospitalizations for older Americans,” says a May 19 CDC statement. “While older Americans have the highest coverage of any age group of first booster doses, most older Americans received their last dose (either their primary series or their first booster dose) many months ago, leaving many who are vulnerable without the protection they may need to prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death. Whether it is your first booster or your second, if you haven’t had a vaccine dose since the beginning of December 2021 and you are eligible, now is the time to get one.”
  • CDC recommends boosters for 5 to 11 year olds. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recommended that children 5 to 11 years old get a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA COVID-19 vaccine on May 19. Her recommendation follows an 11 to 1 vote by the agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that these children get the extra shot five months after they receive a second dose. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) amended the vaccine’s emergency use authorization to add the booster shot for this age group on May 17. “While it has largely been the case that COVID-19 tends to be less severe in children than adults, the omicron wave has seen more kids getting sick with the disease and being hospitalized, and children may also experience longer-term effects, even following initially mild disease,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. Califf said the third dose is being authorized “to provide continued protection against COVID-19.” Vaccines are not yet available for children under 5, though Moderna has submitted its clinical trial data to the FDA in hopes that its shot will soon be authorized for the youngest set. The FDA’s advisory committee is expected to review the requests in June. 
  • Third round of free at-home COVID tests. Americans can now go to covidtests.gov and order a third round of free at-home COVID-19 tests. This latest round will provide eight free tests per household, bringing to 16 the total number of tests people can request to be mailed to their homes. There is no cost for the tests or for the shipping, which is being done by the U.S. Postal Service. “As the highly transmissible subvariants of omicron drive a rise in cases in parts of the country, free and accessible tests will help slow the spread of the virus,” says a White House fact sheet announcing the latest round. The increased availability of free at-home tests is being announced the day after the number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 reached 1 million and as cases, hospitalizations and deaths are climbing. The government began offering the free tests in January and since then 350 million have been sent to people’s homes. Individuals who have difficulty accessing the internet or just need help placing an order can call 800-232-0233 from 8 a.m. to midnight ET, seven days a week. Assistance is available in English, Spanish and 150 other languages.
  • COVID takes 1 million U.S. lives. The number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 reached 1 million on May 16. This grim milestone eclipses the impact of other catastrophes in our nation's history. The deaths equal more than twice the U.S. military casualties of World War II (405,399), the Vietnam War (58,220) and the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 (2,977) — combined. These fatalities also have taken the lives of more Americans than the 657,000 who perished in the flu epidemic of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu, and the more than the 700,000 who have died from HIV/AIDS since 1981. “The fact that more than 90 percent of the 1 million COVID deaths in the U.S. over the last two years have been among those ages 50 and older spotlights the urgent need to address how we support health as we age going forward,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. While 1 million deaths is an overwhelming number, the breakneck development of three coronavirus vaccines that have fully immunized nearly 220 million Americans has prevented an estimated 2.2 million more fatalities from this virus, according to a Commonwealth Fund report. Yet, while hospitalizations and deaths are far lower than they were this past winter, federal health officials and medical experts are quick to point out that this pandemic is not yet behind us. And that is particularly true among Americans who are most at risk for the coronavirus: older adults, those with compromised immune systems and people with such underlying medical conditions as diabetes and respiratory illnesses.
  • FDA restricts use of Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. Americans 18 and older who still have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 should only get the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) shot if the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are not available or medically appropriate, or if getting the J&J product is the only way they will get vaccinated, federal regulators said on May 5 in an update to the vaccine’s emergency use authorization. The reason, FDA noted in its announcement, is a rare but potentially life-threatening complication called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which was first linked to the J&J vaccine in the spring of 2021. Health officials have since been monitoring and investigating all cases of TTS, which develops when blood clots form and an individual also has low levels of blood platelets. The majority of cases — there have been 60 as of March 2022 — have been in women; most have been under age 50. TTS has not been linked to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which use a different mRNA technology from J&J’s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in December recommended the mRNA vaccines over J&J’s product "in most situations."
  • CDC continues to recommend masks on planes and other forms of public transportation. Health officials at the CDC are recommending that everyone age 12 and older wear a well-fitted face mask when riding public transportation, including planes, trains and buses. The agency's statement comes two weeks after a federal court ruling struck down a public transportation mask mandate. It also comes at a time when cases of COVID-19, driven by omicron’s highly contagious subvariants, are creeping back up from last month’s lull. Hospitalizations are also increasing, CDC data shows. “It is important for all of us to protect not only ourselves but also to be considerate of others at increased risk for severe COVID-19 and those who are not yet able to be vaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in the statement. “Wearing a mask in indoor public transportation settings will provide protection for the individual and the community.”
  • COVID-19 was third-leading cause of death in 2021. For the second year in a row, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2021, behind heart disease and cancer, according to a CDC report released April 22. The disease was the underlying cause of more than 415,000 deaths between January and December 2021. Overall death rates were highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native and non-Hispanic Black or African American populations, the CDC report says. About 60,000 more people died of COVID-19 during 2021 than 2020.
  • Study suggests COVID-19 could increase risk of developing diabetes. New research looking at a large collection of patient records found that individuals who had COVID-19 — even a mild or asymptomatic case — experienced an increased risk of developing diabetes after a coronavirus infection. The study was published March 21 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. The reason for the association is not entirely clear, the researchers note, but an accompanying letter stated that the data has “major implications for clinical policy and public health,” considering the number of people (more than 472 million) who have been infected with the coronavirus around the globe. “Any COVID-19-related increases in diabetes incidence could lead to unprecedented cases of diabetes worldwide — wreaking havoc on already over-stretched and under-resourced clinical and public health systems globally, with devastating tolls in terms of deaths and suffering,” the letter’s authors write.

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 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 FDA has officially approved two vaccines — a two-shot series from Pfizer-BioNTech and another two-shot series from Moderna. It has also issued an emergency use authorization (called an EUA) for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by 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 ages 12 through 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 settings (see the CDC's new guidance on when one might be needed in your community); 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. There have been 60 cases as of March 2022 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 can help prevent a coronavirus infection, but importantly, they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, unvaccinated individuals are about 16 times more likely to be hospitalized from a coronavirus infection than vaccinated people, federal data shows. And compared to individuals who are vaccinated and boosted, unvaccinated people age 50 and older are upwards of 45 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.

Despite these protections, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus — and preliminary data show that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines than previous variants — so it is still possible for fully vaccinated individuals to get COVID-19. This is called a “breakthrough infection.”

While fully vaccinated 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
  • 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 have been asked to get tested by a health care provider or state or local health department.

Many places, like schools and workplaces, also require COVID-19 tests as part of routine screening.

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.

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 is also sending them to Americans for freeLearn 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 five days if you test positive for COVID-19, even if you don’t develop symptoms and don’t feel sick — and you should wear a mask when around others for at least 10 days. 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; 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 and those at risk for being hospitalized. 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. A newly authorized monoclonal antibody, called bebtelovimab, works against both omicron and its subvariant, BA.2, health officials say. The FDA, however, has halted the use of two previously authorized monoclonal antibodies after discovering they were not effective against omicron, despite working well when up against the delta variant.

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 are 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. 

AARP has information about specific travel advisories, 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 variant of concern is omicron. 

So far, the available vaccines still provide protection against the omicron variant, however, health officials are urging all adults to get a booster dose for added protection, since the highly transmissible strain has some vaccine-compromising abilities. New research shows the mRNA boosters from Pfizer and Moderna are highly effective at preventing hospitalizations caused by an omicron infection, even though that protection wanes some four months after the third dose. People ages 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.