Coronavirus and Older Adults: Your Questions Answered

by Rachel Nania, AARP

A CDC official explains why more risk comes with age from COVID-19.

Older People Face Higher Coronavirus Risk

En español | As the coronavirus spreads in the U.S. and across the globe, it’s becoming more apparent that older adults and people with underlying health conditions are being hit hardest by the illness it causes. AARP asked Nancy Messonnier, M.D., an internist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, to give us her most up-to-date insights on the coronavirus and how it’s impacting older adults.

What’s your best advice for people over 65 in dealing with the outbreak?

The greatest risk of infection is among those who are in close contact with people who have COVID-19. This includes family members and health care workers who care for people who are infected. If you’re 65 and older and live where cases have been reported, take action to reduce your exposure. Know what’s going on locally. Pay attention to recommendations from your local public health department. Also, make sure you have adequate supplies of routine medications, like medicine for blood pressure and diabetes, and household supplies in case you need to remain at home.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, the White House has issued specific social distancing guidance for the country that urges older Americans and people with underlying health conditions to stay home and to avoid other people.

“Protecting yourself and others from novel coronavirus starts with good planning. My parents are in their 80s and live in Florida. I’ve told them to think about what they would do to prepare for any outbreak or disaster in their community. This includes making sure you have adequate supplies of food and prescription medications in case you need to stay home, and practice everyday preventive actions such as washing your hands, cleaning your home to remove germs, avoiding sick people, and know when to get medical help if you’re ill.”

–Nancy Messonnier, M.D.

Should children, friends or caregivers stop or restrict visits to older people while this situation remains volatile?

This is when knowing what’s going on locally is really important. What is appropriate for a community seeing local transmission won’t necessarily be appropriate for a community where no transmission has occurred. Communities that have seen spread of the virus may encourage social distancing, with a goal of reducing face-to-face contact.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, the White House has issued specific social distancing guidance for the country that urges older Americans and people with underlying health conditions to stay home and to avoid other people.

Should people limit or avoid routine trips to doctors’ offices during this time?

Call your doctor’s office and ask what strategies they’re employing to protect patients. If you develop COVID-19 symptoms, call your health care provider, inform them of your symptoms, and follow their instructions. CDC is also providing guidance to health care facilities on steps they can take to prepare for coronavirus disease.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, health officials have urged patients and health care providers to cancel or postpone all elective and nonessential medical, surgical, and dental procedures during the coronavirus outbreak.

Will warmer weather cause the number of cases of COVID-19 to drop?

It is not yet known whether weather and temperature impact the spread of COVID-19. Some other viruses, like the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months, but that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with them during other months.

There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of COVID-19. Investigations to find those answers are ongoing.

Is it true that older adults face an elevated risk from the virus?

Older people and people with underlying health conditions appear to be about twice as likely to develop serious outcomes versus otherwise younger, healthier people. CDC is particularly concerned about these people, given the growing number of cases in the United States.

Older adults experience a gradual deterioration of their immune system, making it harder for their body to fight off diseases and infection. Many are also more likely to have underlying conditions that hinder the body’s ability to cope and recover from illness. People with health conditions like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes need to be especially careful to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

What should older adults in assisted living or retirement communities do?

Right now, we still judge the general risk to the American public to be low. However, those who are older and medically fragile would be at higher risk if there was spread in a community. There are general, commonsense measures that we ask long-term care facilities to do to make sure to protect their residents, and they are the same things that we’ve been talking about—washing hands, identifying people who are sick early to make sure that they get appropriate medical care. And when somebody is sick, trying to keep them from infecting others.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, the CDC has issued specific guidance for long-term care facilities and nursing homes to restrict all visitation, including volunteers and nonessential health care personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, such as end-of-life situations.

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