You are no doubt alarmed by news reports about the spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. Most confirmed cases of coronavirus cause mild symptoms, and it is possible that the death rate for the virus is artificially high because many of these mild cases haven’t been reported. However, early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that coronavirus is highly contagious, and that it can cause serious respiratory complications in certain individuals. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to these complications, along with people who have heart, lung or kidney disease, and/or diabetes. Those whose immunity is compromised by cancer, HIV, and immunosuppressant drugs also are at risk.
Unfortunately, age weakens the immune system, making it harder for seniors to fight off infections. Older adults also are more likely to have other health conditions (such as those noted previously) that make it more difficult to cope with and recover from illness. These factors contribute to the toll influenza and pneumonia take on older adults during the winter. While we have vaccines that can help prevent influenza and pneumonia, we don’t yet have one for COVID-19—but there are things you can do to stay well.
The lack of a vaccine means it is vital to take the precautions that can help protect you from COVID-19. The main route of virus transmission is through droplets that are generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Droplets are too large to be airborne for long periods of time, and quickly settle out of the air onto surfaces. It is not clear how long COVID-19 survives on a surface, but susceptible people can be infected from contact with a contaminated surface. To reduce transmission, frequently touched surfaces should be properly disinfected. Also thoroughly wash your hands as often as possible, taking sufficient time to do so—the CDC recommends at least 20 seconds (essentially two rounds of singing “Happy birthday”)—and try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Since frequent handwashing can be very drying for your skin, also apply moisturizer. This will help you avoid the sore, cracked skin that can give bacteria better access.
Stay at home as much as you can, especially if cases of the virus have been reported in your community. If you have to go out, try to avoid public transport and crowds, and limit your contact with people who are coughing and sneezing. If you won’t have frequent access to handwashing facilities while you are out, take a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you and apply plenty of it, working it under your fingernails and in between your fingers. Note that the CDC is not recommending that people wear masks to avoid exposure to COVID-19, though a mask may be useful to prevent the spread of the virus by people who have symptoms.
It also is wise to have a contingency plan in case you become ill with COVID-19, or you find out that somebody you have been in close contact with has developed the virus. Make sure you will have sufficient groceries—and medications, if you take these—to last a 14-day quarantine period. Make a list of contact numbers you can access easily (for example, neighbors, your doctor, local public health department, senior center, and any local organizations that can assist in delivering food and other supplies if you are unable to go out), and ensure that you have an up-to-date list of emergency contacts where paramedics can see it if necessary.
It’s important to stay alert for symptoms that may be suggestive of COVID-19. As with influenza, the virus starts with a fever, followed by a dry cough that may develop into shortness of breath (for comparison, the common cold—which also is a type of coronavirus—rarely causes fever). If you are at all concerned about respiratory symptoms, contact your doctor about what course of action to take. Continue to frequently wash your hands, and cough into your sleeve or a tissue. Also take the precaution of cleaning and disinfecting areas and objects you frequently touch (doorknobs, light switches, the TV remote, kitchen countertops). If you develop COVID-19, be prepared to self-isolate yourself away from other family members and pets.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a rapidly evolving situation, but the CDC has a dedicated area on its website with up-to-date information and further advice on what you can do to stay safe—visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html for details.