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Coronavirus Information and Resources on This Week's 'Take on Today'

On this episode we discuss the coronavirus outbreak and steps you can take to be prepared

A blue folder, a test tube and a mask with the word coronavirus written on them

AARP/Getty Images

Bob Edwards:

A novel virus with no vaccine yet could leave most Americans wanting a wise friend or a fierce defender to watch out for them. That’s the approach we take on today’s show:

First, an ER doctor to give you sage advice in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Then, AARP’s Bill Sweeney will tell us how the group is mobilizing federal and state government to protect our communities.

We’ll also hear from AARP and federal health experts, who updated this public at a tele-town half this week.

Hi, I’m Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

Since the beginning of last December, the world has witnessed an outbreak of a new disease, referred to as the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

It started in China and has now spread to more than 95 countries. The disease poses more risk to older people. With that in mind, the CDC has advised that Americans avoid long plane trips, large crowds, and cruises until the situation improves – and, of course, wash your hands.

To help us unpack these risks and how to best overcome them, we’ve brought in a truly wise friend, AARP’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Charlotte Yeh, to talk it over.

For up-to-date information, visit AARP.org/coronavirus.

Dr. Yeh:

There are some very common sense things you can do to prevent being exposed or getting the virus. First of all, we call this social distancing, you want to stay away from large crowds, you want to stay away from people who are sick. Typically, we say about the six feet difference will make it a little safer and most importantly, want to wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth. I know that's hard to do. But certainly washing your hands for a good 20 seconds with soap and water frequently can help prevent that risk for exposure to the virus as well. You should also try and clean the surface counters. You can use sanitizers, you can use household disinfectants, again, to reduce the spread of the virus, but most of it is really coming in through close contact. So that's why the CDC often recommends that A, wash your hands frequently, a very common sense thing to do, to avoid crowds, and to avoid being close to people who are sick.

No one can say for sure why older adults are more vulnerable, but some of the thoughts are when get older, you do have other chronic conditions that can make you more vulnerable, like heart disease, or diabetes, or lung disease. In addition, as you get older, your immune system might not be quite as strong as when you were younger. So those are some of the reasons that older adults may be more vulnerable.

Bob Edwards:

Now, if you are a member of your household falls ill, what should you do?

Dr. Yeh:

Well, it depends when you say someone who falls ill. If you think that they are ill and maybe coming down with a respiratory infection, like a cough, a fever, or shortness of breath, these are symptoms that possibly could be Coronavirus. If they're not seriously sick, like turning blue with real difficulty breathing or high fever, you should call your doctor and describe the symptoms and your doctor can decide whether or not your friend or your loved one should be tested for the Coronavirus infection.

Bob Edwards:

What should family members caring for their loved ones look out for?

Dr. Yeh:

Well. If you are caring for someone who is older, at-risk but not sick, it's always good to make sure your household is prepared, that you have enough medication and drugs on hand for several weeks should someone get sick. You should also have a care plan, so if you yourself become sick and can't care for someone or your family member becomes sick, you should have a plan for how you can take care of your loved one or how you can have a backup plan for yourself.

Bob Edwards:

What's the best way to stay in touch with a family member who lives in a nursing home?

Dr. Yeh:

There's always the telephone. There's always using Skype or FaceTime, if that's available within the nursing home. My father who's 91-years-old can actually use FaceTime and Skype some of the time, so it's a way to stay connected even if you can't physically go in to visit. If someone lives in a nursing home and you want to stay in touch, the first thing I would do is call the nursing home to find out if they feel it is safe for visiting. Most importantly, if you yourself are feeling sick, you absolutely should not be visiting your friend or loved one. If there is concern, again, it depends on your community, how active the virus is in your particular area, if there's concern about not visiting,

Bob Edwards:

What about those thinking of traveling? What should they know?

Dr. Yeh:

If you're thinking of traveling, this is a time to be very thoughtful. If you're in a high-risk group, you're an older adult, particularly in your 80s or higher or an older adult who has underlying medical conditions, like heart disease, or lung disease, or diabetes, you might want to think about postponing any unnecessary, non-essential travel, for the time being, just to avoid exposure and risk. If you're otherwise young and healthy, you're less at risk for a serious complication or a serious illness from the Coronavirus. But again, it would be wise to think seriously about, is the travel really necessary? How important is it? Is it worth putting yourself at risk? And certainly, you would want to avoid travel where the CDC has identified certain parts of the country or globally that are at higher risk for transmission of the Coronavirus.

Bob Edwards:

Any other practical steps we can take to ensure we're prepared?

Dr. Yeh:

The most important thing is, one, there's no reason to panic or to get anxious. Yes, it is very serious. But again, most people about 80% of the time it appears that it is a mild disease. If you are older, yes, there is more risk. If you have chronic disease, like heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, you may be at more risk for contracting the infection. So, it is the common everyday things you've learned since childhood, wash your hands frequently before you eat, after you touch doorknobs and tabletops, after using the bathroom. These are common sense things that we've been taught since childhood. And again, avoid large crowds, avoid being around anybody who is sick. If you yourself are sick, to wear a mask so you prevent infection from reaching other people. So again, if one is thoughtful and prudent, you can help minimize the risk to you yourself.

Bob Edwards:

Thank you, doctor.

Dr. Yeh:

Thank you.

Bob Edwards:

What has AARP been doing to protect seniors?

Bill Sweeney:

Well, a few weeks ago, Congress began work on a package to address the Coronavirus outbreak and AARP jumped right in, got to work, made sure that Congress knew what was going to be most important for our members and for people who are 50 and older in that kind of package. To be honest, the biggest things that we looked at when we initially started looking at this was the fact that state and local governments really needed immediate help, financial help to do the work that they need to do. The state health departments, the local health departments, those folks were in desperate need of funding. And so, the bill that came out of Congress, we're very thankful addressed those issues. The other big ask that AARP had was to expand the use of telehealth so that people who are on Medicare can get telehealth from their doctor, which means that they can use their telephone, or use video chat, or whatever to get help from their doctor without actually going to the doctor's office.

Bill Sweeney:

And while certainly you can't get a physical test or you can't get a surgery or something like that with telehealth, a lot of times people who are just need routine checkups or who might be getting sick and not sure if the symptoms match can do a telephone or a video conference visit with provider and make sure that they're not going into the doctor's office and potentially exposing themselves to other people who are sick.

Bob Edwards:

What's the status of a vaccine, and when it comes out, is it going to be affordable?

Bill Sweeney:

Well, I think we heard today from the administration health experts that we're not close to a vaccine. I mean, it's not far away, but it's not close. And those things, that kind of scientific breakthrough, nobody really knows exactly when it will happen. The most important thing for AARP is that if we do get a vaccine, if we do get treatments, that those things be affordable to people. And so, the bill that Congress passed includes language that ensures that those treatments are priced fairly and reasonably. What that means exactly, it remains to be seen and there's some more work that we're going to do to make sure that if and when we do get to a place where we have a vaccine or a treatment for this virus, that people can afford it.

Bob Edwards:

We've heard about Congress's bill that passes funding for Coronavirus. What's in that bill?

Bill Sweeney:

The bill was an $8.3 billion bill. Robust funding for federal, state, and local providers of health care so that we can make sure that we get the right help to people who need it on the ground. There's a $61 million fund to help develop those treatments. So when you talk about are we close to a vaccine, big money that was put into the National Institutes of Health, who are doing the basic scientific research to help us get to a vaccine or a treatment. $2.2 billion for those federal, state, and local health agencies who are doing the work on the ground. And then, the Medicare telehealth provision, which, which is a very big deal for AARP's members.

Bob Edwards:

What about testing? Is that covered by Medicare and Medicaid?

Bill Sweeney:

What we heard today on the tele-town hall was, yes, that Medicare and Medicaid will pay for those services.

Bob Edwards:

What still needs to be done?

Bill Sweeney:

Well, I think there's a lot of questions about what the next steps are. We're very early in this in the United States. We're just seeing how this is playing out in other countries. We're just seeing how it's playing out here in the United States. I think what we're doing here at AARP is watching very closely and staying in close touch with our AARP state offices in all of the States to find out what they need and what do the providers on the ground need.

Bill Sweeney:

I think in a situation like this where we know this virus really affects older Americans more than anyone else, the most important thing is that the healthcare providers get whatever they need to fight this.

Bob Edwards:

What are some good resources to keep in mind as the situation develops?

Bill Sweeney:

So the cdc.gov, that website has all of the federal government information about how to protect yourself, what to look for, how to take care of loved ones. All of that stuff has been posted on cdc.gov. And, aarp.org/coronavirus is a great resource as well for people who are looking for all of the resources that AARP has put together on this as well.

Bob Edwards:

Are reasons to be optimistic about all this?

Bill Sweeney:

I'm not sure I would say I would be optimistic. I think this is a very serious disease. It's a very serious virus. There's still so much that we don't know. But what I do know is that AARP is going to be on the ground fighting for you and fighting for our members. We are going to make sure that Congress listens to the needs of older Americans and make sure that any response covers the needs of older Americans.

Bob Edwards:

Well, thank you for joining us.

Bill Sweeney:

Thank you. It was my pleasure. I appreciate it.

Bob Edwards

That was Dr. Charlotte Yeh and Bill Sweeney.

This week, AARP hosted a tele-town hall. Folks were encouraged to call in, ask questions and receive up-to-date information about the coronavirus outbreak from AARP and Federal health experts. The recording is now available on AARP.org/coronavirus.

Here are some highlights:

Bill Walsh:
Just a reminder, I'm Bill Walsh with AARP and we're taking your questions today about coronavirus with key leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can ask a question by pressing star three on your telephone keypad.

Bill Walsh:
Let's go to Harry in Kentucky.

Harry:
How do you determine which, if you've got the flu or if you have coronavirus? There was a comment on the internet that said a dry cough comes from the coronavirus and a wet cough is more with the flu. Thank you.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
Yes. This is Dr. Messonnier. Thanks for actually asking that question so I can clarify. The problem is that viral respiratory infections in general have many of the same symptoms, and there is no way to distinguish early symptoms from influenza from early symptoms of coronavirus. So that information about a wet cough versus a dry cough, it's just frankly not true. And that's why this is so difficult and so complicated for all of us, and especially for our healthcare providers.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
In general, that's why you want to know if this disease, coronavirus, is circulating in your community. Because if it is, you may contact your healthcare provider earlier if you have milder symptoms. But in general, the people that we're most worried about are people who have fever and a cough and shortness of breath. And I'd be worried about you having those symptoms regardless of whether it's influenza or coronavirus. So you should use the same common sense that you would always use about what would prompt you to call your healthcare provider. You have a fever, you're short of breath, you have a cough, you call your healthcare provider.

Bill Walsh:
Very much. Dr. Messonnier, I want to return to a point that you made earlier about older people thinking twice about taking long airplane rides. As you know, we're streaming on Facebook and one of the questions we got via Facebook was, "How do you define long? What is a long plane ride that people should be concerned about?"

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
I think that's a great question and I wish I had a black and white answer. One of the things from this outbreak since the very beginning is we have tried to be as transparent as possible with what we know and what we don't and where we're making guidance based on data versus expert opinions.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
So in this case, I wouldn't think about it as an on/off switch. I would think about it as a light dimmer. If you are in the oldest age group in your 80s and you have underlying health issues, you have heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, truthfully, it's probably not a great idea for you to get on any kind of flight. On the other hand, if you're in your mid 60s and you're otherwise generally healthy, I think it's fine to take small flights within the United States.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
But I'd still be concerned about longer flights, not because of the flight itself, but because of the congregate setting and the opportunities to exchange secretions. I wish that we could give you more of a black and white, but there is a judgment call, because we're looking both at your risk of exposure, but also your risk of getting really sick.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
Admiral Giroir, do you want to-

Dr. Brett Giroir:
No. I agree completely with that. Any setting that puts you in very close contact for a longer period of time with people sitting right next to you who could potentially cough or sneeze or expose you, or to be touching a lot of surfaces that people could have coughed on or sneezed on, those are all risk factors.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
And again, it also depends, and we all live in a real world, is really how necessary is that travel. Is it really worth taking a risk of getting a really serious disease for that travel? And that's something you'd have to answer for yourselves. But in general, if you're in an older group or you have chronic conditions or both, you need to be extremely careful about exposures yourselves in those situations.

Bill Walsh:
We have a question from Roger in Tennessee.

Roger:

I'm, what am I, 77, type one diabetes for many decades. Wondering about attending church, and in particular, taking the elements distributed at Communion service, whether that is risky business.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
Well, I'll tell you, this is one of the things that I think Dr. Messonnier and I may talk about. I'm going to tell you that, as we started out, I wouldn't tell you anything that I didn't tell my mother. My mother's 87 years old, she's Catholic, she goes to church every week. But she stayed home last week because there's a lot of people together in close quarters. And I firmly believe God would understand if you chose to protect your health and avoided that. I don't think there's an absolute yes or no. I'm going to ask Dr. Messonnier.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
And not all churches are equal, but it is a place where people come together in close quarters. And in many ceremonies, I know this has been changed in some denominations, there's a hug of peace or shaking heads or sharing, and those are general risky things that I wouldn't want anybody at high risk, particularly yourself. You sound very healthy, but you can't beat the numbers. You're 77 and you got type one diabetes. I would be very careful.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
No, I agree completely. Also, I've heard stories from across the country of churches who have actually made themselves decisions to do tele church, which I think is a really interesting idea to try to make sure that folks can congregate without any risk of person-to-person secretions. So I think that's a great, interesting idea.

Bill Walsh:
Renee from Pennsylvania, you had a question.

Renee:
Yes. Thank you. I was wondering what advice do you have for people who work in nursing homes or long-term care facilities or memory care centers?

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
Yeah, I think it's a really good question. What I would say is that the most important thing if you worked at one of those facilities is to do everything you can not to bring illness into the facility. So on its own, a nursing home, the people in that nursing home aren't at higher risk, unless the infection enters the community.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier:
And so I would suggest that, not only for yourself, but your coworker, you make sure that they're following CMS policies and you want to make sure that people don't come to work sick, because what happens is somebody can come to work sick, get others in the nursing home sick, and then it spread. If it doesn't get into that community, then it's not going to spread.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
No, I agree completely. Make sure that if you're sick, that you don't go into that workplace and potentially infect and cause serious illness. We know there was a very, very high death rate in the long-term care facility near Seattle, and that's something we all want to avoid.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
And of course, all the things you do normally, even though you're not sick, good hygiene is important for any number of reasons, not just for coronavirus. Washing your hands, using the kind of cleanliness protocols that you normally do are even more important now.

Bill Walsh:
Well, that's an interesting question. If folks have a loved one in assisted living or in a nursing home, how can they be assured that their loved one is getting the preventative steps that are necessary to protect them from the virus?

Dr. Brett Giroir:
So I will say this more as a person who our family cared for a relative who was chronically ill in our home and then in a facility. I would say the most important thing is have communication, right? It's very important to talk to the people who are caring for your relative and who are running the facility, to go over the kinds of things and make sure that everyone understands how to best protect the residents.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
I think that communication is really very important. There's plenty of guidelines for the nursing facility or the long-term care facility on the CDC website. Administrator Verma is really emphasizing through her groups on the proper precautions.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
But I would say good communication. Don't be afraid to ask, whether you're a patient and there's a physician or whether you're a family member in a nursing home. There's nothing wrong with asking. You should be empowered to ask the question and basically advocate for your loved one, whether you're the patient or whether your loved one's in a facility.

Dr. Brett Giroir:
And the tools are the tried and true tools of public health, avoiding close contact in congregate settings, like Dr. Messonnier said, and just good hand washing and hygiene techniques provide you a great deal of protection.

Bob Edwards:

For up-to-date information, visit AARP.org/coronavirus.  

If you liked this episode, we’d love to hear from you. Our email address is newspodcast@aarp.org

Thank you to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson and Bill Walsh

Assistant Producer Danny Alarcon

Production Assistants Brigid Lowney and Colin Shott

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Writer Jill Higgs

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For an AARP Take On Today, I’m Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening.

On this week’s episode we discuss the coronavirus outbreak, how the federal government is addressing it, and steps you can take to be prepared.

Plus, hear what health experts had to say at AARP’s Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall event earlier this week. Speakers included Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and Brett Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

To get the most accurate and up-to-date information about COVID-19, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus.

You can also learn more at www.aarp.org/coronavirus

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