Note: While we take every effort to keep our statistics current, the fast-moving nature of this pandemic makes it difficult to stay on top of the numbers and locations of infections and mortality rates.
If you’re over 60, the facts are clear: you are at higher risk for developing the coronavirus infection causing COVID-19. As of March 12, 1,215 people in the U.S. are infected and 36 have died, according to the CDC.
Globally the World Health Organization reports more than 125,000 cases in 118 countries have been infected; as of March 12, more than 4,600 have died from it.
While experts predict that 80% of people who get COVID-19 will have mild illness and recover, with the other 20% having more serious illness, older adults should pay special attention to prevention. That’s because experts now know that risk of a serious infection increases with age. If an older adult also has an underlying disease—such as diabetes, heart or lung disease—the risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 is even higher.
So what’s ”older” in this case? In general, an elevated risk begins at age 60, said Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at a press briefing March 9. The highest risk of serious illness and death is in those over age 80, she said. Age plus an underlying condition (diabetes, heart or lung disease) raises risk.
What to do? Stay up to date on the latest information about the virus and practice preventive strategies.
Information is evolving and fluid on this new virus; after exposure the incubation period is from 2 to 14 days, typically; with 5 days about average. Fever, cough and shortness of breath are common symptoms.
The virus is spread by close contact or by contact with respiratory droplets (from coughs, sneezes). Touching an object with the virus on it, then touching one’s mouth or nose, may make someone ill, but is not thought to be the main transmission route, the CDC says.
Even so, German researchers recently analyzed published studies of other coronaviruses (such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS) and found that they can live on surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, although in some cases the virus lasted as little as 2 hours—and the viruses studied could be inactivated by disinfection within a minute. (For disinfection, use solutions of about 70% ethanol, found in hand sanitizers, or a diluted bleach solution, with about 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of water.)
Older adults ”have to be more mindful of avoiding exposure to [the coronavirus],” says Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. That may translate, he says, to skipping large public gatherings, sporting events and conventions. “It’s not ironclad,” he says of that recommendation. “You have to consider your own risk. There are healthy and not healthy 60-year-olds.”
Avoiding Community spread
Assess not only your personal risk but the situation in your community to get a realistic perception, Dr. Adalja says. “We know it is spreading in communities. It really is something you can catch in the U.S.” No longer is it only happening after people have contact with travelers from China or other affected countries. Check your local department of health webpage for updates.
Stay away from anyone with respiratory illnesses, including your grandchildren, says Aaron Glatt, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Mt. Sinai South Nassau, New York.
Other tips from these public health experts and the CDC:
- Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.
- Keep a ”social distance” of 6 feet from people you don’t know when out in public—not easy.
- Wash your hands often, for at least 20 seconds, using soap and water. Wash after being out in public, after a cough or sneeze or nose blowing and before eating.
- If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer—if you were smart enough to stock up before the shelves emptied.
- Give up hand shaking; offer an elbow bump or a simple hello.
- Take clean tissues with you before going out in public; use them to open doors, place on handrails and push elevator buttons.
- Avoid touching your face—a hard habit to break.
- Clean and disinfect your home often—clean tables, light switches, toilets, sinks, faucets, doorknobs, your phone, your touch screens.
- Stock up on enough food and water and other supplies to sit out a potential quarantine (when those exposed are asked to stay home for 14 days to see if they become sick) or isolation (when people are diagnosed with COVID-19). Have adequate supplies of medicines you need for blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other conditions and stock over-the-counter fever reducers.
- Get your flu shot if you haven’t already.
What not to do? Buy and hoard masks. “I would ask people to please fight your urge to buy a mask,” Messonnier said. It’s important to save them for health care workers on the front lines who truly need them. Bottom line: be careful and clean and stay informed, but don’t let fear paralyze you.
Hearing about the COVID19 spread on a daily basis is understandably anxiety-producing. Tell us what you are doing to cope.