As the new coronavirus is spreading in the U.S. and around the world, older adults have emerged as the most vulnerable patients.
Public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are now urging older adults, especially those who already have health challenges, to “stay at home as much as possible” to avoid getting the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
“If you are an elderly person with an underlying condition, if you get infected, the risk of getting into trouble is considerable,” one of the nation’s top experts on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said recently on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “So it’s our responsibility to protect the vulnerable. When I say ‘protect,’ I mean right now. Not wait until things get worse. Say no large crowds, no long trips. And above all, don’t get on a cruise ship.”
Early research shows that older people are twice as likely to have serious complications if they get COVID-19. And people with chronic conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, are also more at risk for severe cases of COVID-19.
“If you are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of your age or because you have a serious long-term health problem, it is extra-important for you to take actions to reduce your risk of getting sick with the disease,” public health experts at the CDC state.
For older adults and their caretakers who have questions, Dr. Jean Kutner provides answers. Kutner is an internal medicine doctor, specializing in geriatrics, hospice and palliative care, as well as chief medical officer at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and a professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
- For all updates and to read more articles about coronavirus, please visit uchealth.org/coronavirus
As an older adult, am I at risk for COVID-19?
Coronavirus is a family of viruses that can cause respiratory symptoms similar to the common cold and seasonal flu. Symptoms range from mild to severe and may include cough, fever and difficulty breathing. COVID-19 is the name given to the disease caused by this year’s outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus.
“Older adults do tend to be more susceptible to getting infections,” Kutner said. “Even with the regular influenza, older people tend to have more complications and do poorly.”
And, in this way, the coronavirus is acting much like the flu. Last year, an estimated 35.5 million people Americans got sick with the influenza, resulting in 34,200 deaths. Of those who died, an estimated 70-80% were 65 and older. And of the almost 500,000 hospitalizations from the influenza last year, about 70% were seniors.
To safeguard older adults from COVID-19, experts at the CDC are now recommending stronger precautions for those ages 60 and older.
“Many times, older adults have underlying health conditions that make it harder for them to recover from illnesses,” Kutner said.
They should watch for these early warning signs that something may be wrong, she said.
- COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Call your doctor if you start to develop any of these symptoms.
- Seek emergency help immediately if you:
- Have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest.
- New confusion or difficulty waking up.
- Bluish lips or face.
This list is not all-inclusive. Consult a medical provider with any severe or concerning symptoms.
“Older adults may be less likely than younger individuals to run a fever when they have an infection,” Kutner said. “If you have other symptoms of an infection or are feeling poorly, it is better to get checked out even if you don’t have a fever.”
Should I avoid senior centers, churches and other areas where there may be large numbers of compromised people, including cruise ships and airplanes?
People who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 should take everyday precautions to keep space between themselves and others and should avoid crowds as much as possible, according to guidance from the CDC.
And if a COVID-19 outbreak comes to your community, staying home as much as possible is wise.
Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and adviser to the CDC, is over 60 and is following the same precautions himself. He put it this way in an interview with CNN Health: “I’m not asking everyone to stay at home and lock the door for a month. I’m saying, be thoughtful every time you contemplate getting together with a crowd or group.”
If you to go out into the public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often.
“Decrease contact and shaking hands, especially when you don’t have an opportunity to wash your hands,” Kutner said.
Older adults should take the same precautions if they have visitors in their homes.
“It is still good infection prevention if you have people coming to the house, make sure they are not ill, that they don’t have a fever or cough,” Kutner said. “Make sure they and you are washing hands well.”
Take these precautions to stay well and prevent the spread of coronavirus:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Wash for at least 20 seconds before you eat, after you sneeze and after using the bathroom.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers in addition to hand-washing.
- Regularly clean surfaces like counters and your mobile phone.
- Avoid community candy jars and be careful at buffets or anywhere many people touch surfaces or utensils.
- Sneeze and cough into a sleeve rather than into your hand or the air.
- Avoid contact with anyone with cold or flu symptoms.
- Stay home from work or other events, such as your volunteer job, if you are sick.
- If you’re sick or immune-compromised, avoid places with large numbers of people.
If I’m feeling healthy, should I skip my regular, scheduled doctors’ appointments to avoid others who might be sick?
“I don’t think that people, including seniors, should postpone their regular medical care,” Kutner advised. “Our clinics are being highly vigilant about identifying patients who may be contagious and isolating them away from other patients.”
Patients who have a fever, cold or flu symptoms are encouraged to call their clinic first to let them know they’re coming in with those symptoms. And if they have a mask, they should arrive at the clinic wearing it — worn fully over the nose and mouth and tucked under the chin. They can also ask staff members at the information desk or care team station for a mask.
In most cases, the CDC does not recommend people who are healthy wear masks, as it doesn’t prevent them from getting sick. However, if you are caring for someone who is sick and they cannot wear a mask because, for example, it causes trouble breathing, then you and anyone who lives with the sick person should not stay in the same room with them, or wear a mask if you must be in the room.
I have home health care services. Should I be concerned about those services coming to my home?
“If you have a home health agency, what are they doing to make sure their staff aren’t going out ill to take care of people? That is a reasonable question to ask of them,” Kutner said.
In Fort Collins, Meals on Wheels executive director Glenda Shayne said her staff and volunteers have been trained appropriately to wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. They also advised their staff to use hand sanitizer between each delivery stop and maintain a distance of at least six feet from another person when possible. She said they err on the side of caution, and anyone who thinks they may be ill is advised to stay home, and a substitute driver for their route is provided.
“We know the critical importance of preparation in times like this and understand the delicate balance between panic and preparedness,” Shayne said, adding that she doesn’t anticipate a disruption in service at this time.
People receiving home services also can help their community stay safe, she said.
“Clients should call (Meals on Wheels) if they have flu-like symptoms but also leave a cooler outside their door so we can leave a meal,” she said. “This is the same protocol we use if a client doesn’t plan to be home during a delivery but still needs a meal.”
What can I be doing to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak in my community?
“Everyone, especially seniors, should make sure that they are up to date on their vaccines,” Kutner said. “UCHealth patients can check on the status of their immunizations through the My Health Connection portal.”
CDC health experts give this advice to high-risk populations:
- Have supplies on hand.
- Contact your health care provider to ask about obtaining extra necessary medications to have on hand if you do need to stay home for a prolonged period of time.
- If you cannot get extra medications, consider using mail order for medications.
- Have over-the-counter medications and supplies available to treat a fever or other symptoms. Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.
- Have enough household items and groceries on hand so you’re prepared to stay home for a period of time.
- Have a plan in place if you do get sick.
- Consult your health care provider to help monitor symptoms of COVID-19.
- Stay in touch with others via phone or email as you may need to ask for help from them.
- Determine who can provide you with care if your caregiver gets sick.
- Limit contact with your pets, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. This may mean asking someone else to help care for your animal, or if you must care for your pet, wear a mask and wash your hands before and after interactions. Although there have not been any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, limited contact is recommended until more is known about the virus.
How can I get the most accurate and updated information on this new coronavirus outbreak?
“There is plenty of information out there, but the key is to get good and true information,” Kutner said.
The CDC and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have the best information, she said. But for those people who don’t use the internet, there are other options.
For general questions about COVID-19, people can call CO-HELP at 303.389.1687 or 1.877.462.2911.
General questions can be emailed to COHELP@RMPDC.org.