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Coronavirus and Seniors: What You Need to Know

Quick facts and prevention tips

Commonly known as “coronavirus,” the COVID-19 virus is a respiratory illness. 

Currently, the risk of getting coronavirus in the U.S. is low. 

But if the illness does spread, seniors and people with chronic health conditions are at higher risk, just as they are with seasonal flu.

To reduce the spread of disease, CDC recommends using common-sense prevention practices:

  • Get a flu shot, if you haven’t already
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

For people at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, the CDC recommends:

  • Stocking up on supplies
  • Taking everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others
  • In public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact, and wash hands often
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible
  • Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel
  • During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed

What is coronavirus or COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. 

In general, human coronaviruses cause respiratory tract infections that range from the common cold to more serious illnesses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

COVID-19 is the name for a new virus that’s been spreading across the globe since late December 2019. It hadn’t previously been seen in humans.

How does COVID-19 spread?

Similar to seasonal flu, COVID-19 is passed between people through coughing, sneezing, or close contact like touching or shaking hands.

It can also be transmitted by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth without washing hands.

Just like the flu, the virus spreads easily, which makes it hard to contain.

And because the incubation period is between 2 and 14 days, people could be transmitting the disease while they have no symptoms.

Coronavirus prevention

To protect from coronavirus, the CDC recommends the same methods that you’d use to protect against the flu or other common respiratory diseases.

Preventive measures include:

  • Getting a flu shot (if you haven’t already)
  • Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick. Close contact is considered more than a few minutes within 6 feet of a sick person or direct contact like kissing or sharing utensils.
  • Staying away from work, school or other people if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.
  • Covering coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then immediately throwing the tissue in the trash.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces like doorknobs, remote controls, phones, computers, and mobile devices.

Consider “social distancing” for those at higher risk
People who are over the age of 60, pregnant, or on medications that weaken the immune system are at higher risk of infection and complications of infection.

Someone who’s at higher-risk might want to consider “social distancing” as a preventive measure.

That means if there’s any reported risk of COVID-19 transmission in the local area, avoid large gatherings of people and public transportation (bus, subway, taxi, rideshare).

In addition, keep a safe distance from other people, approximately 6 feet.

Does the flu shot provide protection against coronavirus?

First, let’s remember that it’s still flu season and that the flu is known to cause serious illness and complications in seniors. Getting the flu shot reduces flu risk and severity. Get more info about the benefits of the flu shot for seniors »

In terms of COVID-19, according to Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Respiratory Diseases, there’s no evidence that the flu shot or the pneumococcal vaccination will provide protection from the coronavirus. 

But according to Dr. Trish Perl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, “it is possible that the coronavirus, by injuring lung cells, can make it easier for pneumonia to take hold in people who also get the flu or bacterial pneumonia.”

So, infectious disease specialists strongly recommend flu vaccination as a way to prepare for coronavirus.

For seniors, having both the flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine can increase the chances of staying healthy.

Do face masks protect from coronavirus?

Surgical masks are a common sight in areas with coronavirus outbreaks. But are they effective in protecting from infection?

Experts say that they offer some protectionbut only when worn properly. And even when worn properly, air and germs can still get around the sides of the mask.

AARP writes that according to Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, “a typical disposable mask can help prevent large-particle droplets from reaching your mouth and nose – two common areas where viruses enter the body.”

Adalja says, “But you really have to be meticulous when wearing them and not put your hand underneath them and touch your face or do anything that would contaminate your face and kind of obviate the reason for having the mask.”

Currently, the CDC doesn’t recommend that people who are well wear a face mask. They should only be worn if a healthcare professional recommends it.

In addition, a face mask will restrict breathing. So if someone already has a health condition that affects their ability to breathe, wearing a face mask could do more harm than good.

If you wonder if your older adult or you should be wearing a face mask, check with their or your doctor first.

However, face masks should be worn by people who show symptoms of COVID-19. This helps prevent the spread of the disease to others. They also should be worn by people who are taking care of someone who is sick.