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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus Outbreak

AARP is hosting a weekly live Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall on Thursdays. 

Coming Thursday, April 16

Coronavirus: Telehealth

Experts at this week’s live Q&A event will address questions and provide guidance related to telehealth. Learn the basics of electronic and virtual services and how to access them. Find out how Medicare and private insurances have adjusted and expanded their rules for testing, prescriptions and out-of-network care during the pandemic. Listen to the Tele-Town Hall at 1pm ET on Thursday, April 16 here

Latest updates

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  • Federal officials have made it clear that once a COVID-19 antibody test becomes widely available, public and private health insurance plans will be required to cover the test at no cost to patients. The antibody tests, health officials say, will show whether someone has been exposed to the coronavirus and whether their immune system has produced antibodies that will keep them from getting sick again or infecting others. “Once broadly available, a COVID-19 antibody test could become a key element in fighting the pandemic by providing a more accurate measure of how many people have been infected and potentially enabling Americans to get back to work more quickly,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in a statement.
  • Members of the White House coronavirus task force on Friday said progress in slowing the virus is encouraging, but stressed that now is not the time to ease physical distancing guidelines. “We have not reached the peak,” said Deborah Birx, response coordinator of the task force. “And so every day, we need to continue to do what we did yesterday and the week before, and the week before that. Because in the end, that is what’s going to take us up across the peak and down the other side.” 
  • Emerging U.S. data show that black and Hispanic Americans may be disproportionately affected by severe cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. “We do not think people of color are biologically or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on Friday. Instead, he pointed to social factors and “a higher incidence of the very diseases that put you at risk for severe complications from coronavirus.”  
  • Pharmacists can now order and administer COVID-19 tests, federal officials announced Wednesday. Allowing licensed pharmacists to provide tests authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “means easier access to testing for Americans who need it,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. 
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging all Americans — even people who feel healthy — to wear cloth face masks or homemade face coverings in public when 6-foot distancing is difficult to maintain in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Experts emphasize that other preventive measures, such as handwashing and social distancing, are still crucial. 
  • Members of the White House task force are asking all Americans — not just those living in communities experiencing a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases — to adhere to the Coronavirus Guidelines for America through April in order to prevent thousands more deaths from the virus. 

What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

What can older adults do to reduce their risk of illness? 

Older adults and people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung ailments, are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious symptoms from the illness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19). People with cancer are also at increased risk for COVID-19 complications. 

In the U.S., that means more than 105 million Americans are at increased risk for complications if infected due to age or comorbidities, an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. 

Risk of death from the coronavirus also is higher in older adults. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults ages 65 and older. The CDC has issued specific guidance for older adults and people who have chronic medical conditions. Here’s what the agency recommends:

Avoid crowds, rethink daily activities  

The White House on March 16 announced a plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. The guidelines, which encourage people to keep their distance from others — at least 6 feet — and to practice good hygiene, are in effect through April.

Many states, cities and communities have issued directives that urge residents to stay home as much as possible. Restaurants and nonessential businesses across the country have been temporarily shuttered, students are carrying out their school work at home and employees who are able to telework are doing so. 

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities — whose residents are at the highest risk of being affected by COVID-19 — have banned outside visitors, including volunteers and non-essential healthcare personnel, per federal recommendations. 

And while limiting contact with others is one way to slow the spread of the virus and protect high-risk populations from infection, public health experts also are advising every day actions that people can take to reduce their risk of infection, such as frequent handwashing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks. 

Stock up on supplies 

Older Americans and adults who routinely take medications should make sure they have “adequate supplies” on hand, said Nancy Messonnier, an internist and director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC — enough to last two weeks to a month.

It’s also important to stock up on over-the-counter medications to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues and common medical supplies.

Major health insurers have pledged to relax prescription refill limits on “maintenance medications” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Prescription refill limits are also being waived for many Medicare Advantage and Part D beneficiaries. 

If you run into difficulty stocking up on your prescriptions at the pharmacy, consider refilling your medications with a mail-order service, the CDC says. You can also ask your physician to switch your prescription from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply to make sure you have enough medication to get through a potential COVID-19 outbreak in your community.  

And make sure you have enough food in the house in case you have to stay home for an extended period. 

What’s the best way to protect myself?

Limit exposure. That’s the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This means staying home as much as you can and minimizing contact with others, especially crowds. Avoid all nonessential travel and consider meal pickup and delivery options as an alternative to dining out. 

Health officials also advise taking everyday steps that can prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. Wash your hands often with soap and water (scrub for at least 20 seconds), and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap is not an option. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and cover your coughs and sneezes. 

Some other advice: Stay home when you are sick, keep a distance of at least 6 feet between you and others, and clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. 

“This is the other side of not spreading the disease, which is not catching it,” Messonnier said.  

It’s also a good idea to draft a plan in case you do become sick. Identify a designated “sick room” in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from those who are healthy. And identify aid organizations in your community that you can contact for help should you need it.

What about travel? 

The government advises against all nonessential travel, domestic or foreign, and has issued a strong warning against cruise travel during the pandemic. 

The government has banned travelers from more than 30 countries to the U.S., including Ireland and the United Kingdom. Several countries around the world are doing the same in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Border restrictions are in place between the U.S. and Canada and the U.S. and Mexico. 

The CDC, U.S. State Department and World Health Organization (WHO) websites have up-to-date travel information.

How is the coronavirus spreading?

Much of what experts know is based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. When person-to-person transmission occurred with Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes from an infected person were the likely culprit, according to the CDC. Those droplets can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or be inhaled into the lungs.

It may be possible to get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the CDC says. 

Health officials are still working to better understand how easily the virus is spread from person to person. It may be possible for an infected person to spread the virus before exhibiting symptoms. However, people are thought to be most contagious when they are sick with the symptoms of the virus, the CDC says. 

What are the symptoms?

Patients with COVID-19 have reported symptoms similar to other respiratory illnesses, including mild to severe fever, cough and shortness of breath, the CDC reports. Many patients with severe complications from the virus develop pneumonia and may require assistance breathing with a ventilator.

The CDC is 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, disorientation or confusion, a blue tint in your face or lips, or difficulty breathing or shortness of breath — get medical attention immediately, health officials warn.

Doctors who suspect COVID-19 can order a test. New legislation, signed into law March 18, makes coronavirus tests available at no cost.

The CDC also has tips for what to do if you become infected with COVID-19.

How is it treated?

There is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19 at this time, just relief from symptoms. Clinical trials are underway, however, to test the safety and efficacy of potential therapies for adults with COVID-19.

What are prospects for a vaccine?

A Phase 1 clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus is currently underway in Seattle. Even still, a vaccine is likely a year away, at minimum, from being available to the public. 

Why does it take so long?

A vaccine will need to be tested in months-long clinical trials to determine its safety and effectiveness in people, explained Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. If the vaccine proves safe and effective in the trials and is rushed through regulatory processes, it will still need to be produced for the masses, which will likely add several more months to the timeline.

Will a flu shot provide protection?

There is no evidence that the flu shot or the pneumococcal vaccination will provide any protection from the coronavirus, Messonnier said. Both, however, will increase your chances of staying healthy and staying out of the hospital during the pandemic.   

And it’s important to keep in mind that, like COVID-19, the flu can be deadly. The CDC estimates that the flu was responsible for 34,200 deaths in the 2018-19 season.

How can I take care of a sick friend?

Health officials stress that it’s important to take care of sick friends and neighbors in the community — and there’s a way to do so safely. If you are taking food to a neighbor, consider leaving it at the door. Since COVID-19 is most likely passed by respiratory droplets, this will eliminate the chance of the virus spreading.

If you are caring for someone who has COVID-19, keep a safe distance. Wash your hands often, wipe down high-touch surfaces and remind the person who is sick to wear a face mask. You should wear a face mask too. If appropriate precautions are followed, “you’re perfectly safe to be in the environment with them,” Messonnier said.

“I think it is great we step up to help each other, and there are some commonsense precautions to protect you,” she added. 

What is the advice on face masks?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging all Americans — even people who feel healthy — to wear cloth face masks or homemade face coverings in public when 6-feet social distancing is difficult to maintain in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The new guidance, announced April 3, is a reversal from previous CDC recommendations that face masks only need to be worn by people who are sick with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, or by those caring for someone who is sick.

The masks the CDC is recommending can be purchased online or made at home. Health officials stress N95 respirator masks and surgical masks should be reserved for frontline health care workers.

What, exactly, is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses, named for their crownlike shape, are a large family of viruses that are common in many species of animals. Several coronaviruses can infect people, according to the CDC. These strains mostly cause cold-like symptoms but can sometimes progress to more complicated lower respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

On rare occasion, animal coronaviruses can evolve and spread among humans, as seen with MERS and SARS. The virus at the center of the latest outbreak is being referred to as a novel (new) coronavirus, since it’s something that health officials have not seen before.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments in the global outbreak. Check back regularly.

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