The coronavirus has affected thousands of people all over the world, and no single demographic has been hit harder than older adults.
The 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that has thus far affected older adults at disproportionate rates of both infection and death. Seniors and people who have chronic heart disease, diabetes or lung disease are especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection.
Below is a guide to help older adults better defend against the coronavirus, including how Medicare coverage can help.
What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause anything from the common cold to more severe diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
Novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. This strain leads to a disease called COVID-19.
As of January 5, 2021, COVID-19 has infected 20,732,404 Americans, resulting in 352,464 total deaths.1
How does coronavirus spread?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted to humans from animals.
For example, SARS was initially transmitted from a cat, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was first transmitted to humans from a camel.
It is not yet known which animal may have been the source for the newest strain of coronavirus, but it first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan (which has a population of over 11 million people) in December.
Once coronavirus is transmitted to humans, it spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets that are coughed, sneezed or exhaled into the air by the infected person and inhaled by another. These droplets can be inhaled by anyone within approximately six feet of an infected person.
Coronavirus can also live on surfaces such as door handles or tables and be spread by touching your mouth or nose after coming into contact with the infected surface.
It is estimated that each infected person will infect on average 2-3 additional people. It is currently believed that only those who are experiencing symptoms may transmit the disease or at the least, those with the most symptoms are the most contagious.
Who is affected the most by coronavirus?
Older adults and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer are most at risk.
A study in China showed that the average age to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome –or severe shortness of breath that requires the use of a ventilator – as a result of coronavirus is 61 years old.2
Older adults may also be at a higher risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. Millions of seniors reside in senior living communities, assisted living homes or nursing homes, putting them in close contact with other seniors. Most of the first-reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been traced to a nursing home in Seattle, Washington.
Children appear to be at less of a risk. One study from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) found that just 2% of coronavirus cases affected children under 18 years old, and of those, only around 3% developed a severe case of COVID-19.3
What are the common coronavirus infection symptoms?
Coronavirus infection symptoms typically appear 2-14 days after exposure to coronavirus and include:
- Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
COVID-19 may also bring persistent pain or pressure in the chest and a bluish discoloration in the lips or face.
More severe cases can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. The mortality rate for COVID-19 has been estimated at a little over 2%, though that number may exaggerate the lethality of the disease, as not all cases of infection are reported.4
Some people who have tested positive for the coronavirus have shown only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
How is COVID-19 treated?
There is no current treatment for the coronavirus or COVID-19 itself. Infected persons are treated for their symptoms, such as taking steps to alleviate their fever and suppress their cough.
Supportive care such as oxygen therapy and fluid management can also be effective treatment for symptoms.
Free coronavirus testing in the U.S
Coronavirus testing has been made free for people in the United States.
There are a few different ways to test for COVID-19.
- Swab test
A swab is used to collect a sample from the nose or mouth
- Nasal aspirate
A saline solution is injected into the nose and then removed with suction
- Tracheal aspirate
A thin tube is inserted down the mouth and into the lungs to retrieve a sample
- Sputum test
Sputum is a thick mucus that is coughed up from the lungs that can be collected in a cup or with a swab
- Blood test
A blood sample is taken from a vein
Only certain facilities have been approved for coronavirus testing. If your health care provider thinks you should be tested for coronavirus, they will contact the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and refer you to a facility approved for testing.
Coverage of the test is protected as an essential health benefit as dictated by the Affordable Care Act.
The coronavirus test is covered by Medicare Part B, and you will pay nothing out-of-pocket for it if you are a Medicare beneficiary.
Is there a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine?
As of January 6, 2021, there are two COVID-19 vaccines the FDA has approved using an emergency use authorization: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.
There have been least nine companies in the U.S. actively working toward the development and production of vaccines, some of which were backed by government funding. Widespread distribution will likely occur later in 2021.
Medicare covers the coronavirus vaccine for eligible beneficiaries.
What should seniors do to stay safe from coronavirus?
There are a number of things seniors can do to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Only touch hard surfaces in public when necessary.
- Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds multiple times per day, especially after using the restroom and being out in public.
- Avoid close contact with others.
- Use disinfectant on doorknobs, light switches, drawer handles, countertops, telephones and other surfaces that are frequently touched.
- Practice good health habits like getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and drinking a lot of fluids.
- Postpone any medical or dental appointments that are not urgent or immediately necessary. Health care facilities may be more susceptible to carrying the virus due to the number of sick people who frequent them each day.
- Keep an adequate supply of food and household necessities along with at least a 30-day ration of any prescription medications, if possible. Consider using a mail-order prescription service to avoid trips to the pharmacy.
- Consider using a home delivery service for groceries and meals.
- Stay tuned to your local public health agency and local news outlets for updated information about the outbreak in your community.
Face masks may help prevent the spread of the coronavirus from infected people.
Additional coronavirus resources for seniors
Below are some resources for updated news, information and tips about the coronavirus and COVID-19 that may be helpful to seniors:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Stay up to date with the latest national coronavirus information from the CDC.
- American Red Cross
Check out these safety tips and updates from the American Red Cross.
- World Health Organization
The World Health Organization put together this instruction manual about how to care for someone at home who is suspected of having COVID-19.
- Harvard Medical School
Explore these tips for caregivers who may be caring for someone with COVID-19, especially those who are caring for older parents.
- U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education compiled these helpful resources for teachers and other educational professionals looking to stay safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- United States Department of Labor
The U.S. Department of Labor compiled this extensive list of coronavirus resources for working professionals from a number of different fields.
1 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Jan. 6, 2021). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the U.S. Retrieved January 6 from www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html.
2 Yanli Liu, et al. (Feb. 27, 2020). Clinical features and progression of acute respiratory distress syndrome in coronavirus disease 2019. medRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.17.20024166.
3 The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020[J]. China CDC Weekly, 2020, 2(8): 113-122.
4 Worldometer. COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2021 from www.worldometers.info/coronavirus.