Mar 17, 2020 What Older Adults Need To Know About Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Jessica L. Israel, MD, Senior Vice President of Geriatrics and Palliative for RWJBarnabas Health

What is coronavirus or COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that we have known about for a long time. There are 7 types, with most of them only causing a mild respiratory illness/cold symptoms like sore throat, cough, or congestion. Two of the coronaviruses SERS and MERS can cause more serious disease, especially in people who have underlying serious medical conditions.

COVID-19 is the name of a new coronavirus, first discovered in December of 2019 in Wuhan, China. We are still learning about this virus. We know that it is contagious. About 80 percent of patients who develop COVID-19 infection will have a mild respiratory illness: cough, sore throat, mild fever. However, about 20% of those infected will have a more severe illness. A smaller number of this 20% can have an infection that can even be fatal.

The majority of people who have the more serious infection are older adults, and people who have chronic underlying medical illness like heart and lung disease. People with weaker immune systems are also at higher risk for a more serious infection.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 12, 2020.

What can I do to limit my risk of exposure to COVID-19?

  • Most importantly wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It’s also OK to use hand sanitizer if there is no soap and water available.
  • Limit large group gatherings. Stay away from events where large groups of people would be: classes, movies, shows, large family events, etc.
  • Limit your visitors at home to single person visits and do not allow visitors that are sick to visit with you.
  • Wipe down high contact areas with sanitizing wipes: things like door handles, countertops, and bathrooms.
  • The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
  • Avoid cruise travel during this time. Avoid airline travel, especially to countries where the risk has been great. If you must travel by airplane exercise good practices: wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer, and wipe frequently used surfaces with sanitizing wipes (tray tables, arm rests, seat control buttons).

What is social distancing and how can this help?

Social distancing is a term applied to certain actions that are taken by public health officials to slow the spread of a highly contagious disease. History has taught us that contagious diseases spread rapidly when large groups of people are close together. Social distancing can slow the spread of COVID-19 and even prevent some people from being exposed. This is why many public and private colleges are no longer holding face-to-face classes, Broadway is closed, parades have been cancelled and National sport seasons, like basketball and hockey, have been suspended.

Should I stay at home?

You should stay at home. Do not attend large group events or socialize in settings where many people are gathering. This includes shopping malls, restaurants, and bars. Adjusting to staying at home can feel difficult, but remember the majority of people who will develop serious complications from COVID-19 infections are older adults. It is important to follow these guidelines, even if you are feeling well. Staying home can prevent you from being exposed and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Can I visit my loved ones who live in nursing homes and assisted living/senior living environments?

Many facilities have been updating their vising policies as COVID-19 cases have increased in the United States. Many health care facilities now have a very limited visitor policy in place, and some have eliminated visits entirely. Check facility websites or call to learn of any visitor changes in the places your loved ones live.

If visits are allowed at your particular site, and if the patient you are visiting is otherwise healthy, you can follow these general guidelines:

  • Do not visit in large groups, visit singly if you can.
  • Take precautions to wash your hands when you enter and when you leave. Use sanitizing wipes for high touch areas: doorknobs, chair handles, etc.
  • Consider visiting virtually with smartphone or computer, or regular phone calls if your in-person visit is nonessential.
  • Absolutely do not visit loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living/senior living environments if you are not feeling well yourself.

If the person you are visiting is sick and you must visit, your sick loved one should wear a mask. If they are unable to wear a mask, then you should wear one. Healthcare staff caring for your loved one will direct you at the time of your visit as to what you will need. Again, consider visiting virtually with smartphone or computer, or even regular phone calls until the illness resolves.

Should I keep my routine scheduled follow up appointments at my doctor’s office?

At this point, many providers are making alternate arrangements for routine, non-essential visits. Many providers are offering telemedicine options either via phone call or with video technology. Call your provider if you have a routine appointment scheduled and need one of these other options.

What should I do if I think I have symptoms related to COVID-19?

If you have symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell, call your healthcare provider. They will ask you a series of questions that will help to determine how best to help you and where you should go to be examined. In almost every circumstance, a call to your healthcare provider is the correct first step. If you have severe symptoms, including trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face, call your healthcare provider immediately and be prepared to go to the hospital as soon as possible. Only in a true medical emergency should you call 911.

What should I do if I have an acute medical problem not related to COVID-19 that needs a doctor’s appointment?

Again, in almost every circumstance, a call to your healthcare provider is the correct first step. Only in a true medical emergency should you call 911.

I find myself getting very anxious about all that I am reading and seeing on the news about COVID-19. How can I cope with my stress related to this outbreak?

  • Consider lessening the time you spend watching or listening/reading to media coverage that may be upsetting. Look to reliable, trusted sources of information like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the NJ Department of health, or your doctor or trusted healthcare professional.
  • Draw on the skills you have used in the past to help you manage challenging emotions: Meditation, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, yoga, or conversations with people you trust who are calm and reliable, as examples. At home hobbies can also be helpful- like working on a puzzle, or watching movies on television.
  • It is normal to feel stressed, confused and anxious during a crisis. If you feel overwhelmed, contact a health care worker or counselor.