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.
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 March 26, 2020, COVID-19 has infected 68,440 Americans, resulting in 994 total deaths.1
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.
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
Coronavirus infection symptoms typically appear 2-14 days after exposure to coronavirus and include:
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 under 4%, 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.
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.
Coronavirus testing has been made free for people in the United States.
There are a few different ways to test for COVID-19.
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.
There are no FDA-approved vaccines for COVID-19 as of March 27, 2020.
There are at least nine companies in the U.S. that are actively working toward the development of a vaccine, some of which are being backed by government funding. A working vaccine is likely at least a year or more away from being available for widespread distribution.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called on Medicare to provide coverage for a coronavirus vaccine, should one become available.
There are a number of things seniors can do to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Face masks may help prevent the spread of the coronavirus from infected people. However, they are not believed to reduce the odds of contracting the coronavirus.
Below are some resources for updated news, information and tips about the coronavirus and COVID-19 that may be helpful to seniors: