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The new coronavirus may be especially dangerous for older adults according to early research. Getty Images
  • The elderly, especially those with preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, may be severely affected by the new virus.
  • COVID-19 may be similar to seasonal flu. From 70 to 85 percent of all flu-related deaths, and 50 to 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations, occur among those 65 years and over, according to the CDC.
  • But there isn’t a reason to panic. Experts recommend taking steps to prepare in case you contract the disease.

As the coronavirus epidemic spreads across several U.S. states, experts point out that many people will not have serious symptoms even if they contract the disease.

However, there is one group of people who are at particular risk.

Just like with the seasonal flu, older people, especially those with chronic health conditions, are at higher risk of being affected as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, spreads.

“Based on all the data we have been receiving so far, it appears that elderly people, especially those with multiple comorbid conditions, are affected more severely,” Dr. Nagendra Gupta, internist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, told Healthline.

“In a recent study published in JAMA, which is the largest study on COVID-19 published so far, the case fatality rate was close to 15 percent in patients over the age of 80 as against the average overall case fatality rate of 2.3 percent,” he added.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that children 10 and under accounted for just 1 percent of all COVID-19 cases, while those between the ages of 30 to 79 make up nearly 90 percent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) found mortality increased with age, with the highest mortality among people over 80 years of age and those with underlying health conditions.

“While information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16 percent of cases,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) in a recent telebriefing.

“Older people and people with underlying health conditions, like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example, were about twice as likely to develop serious outcomes versus otherwise younger, healthier people.”

Messonnier emphasized that older people and those who take medications to manage chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, should ensure they have “adequate supplies” on hand, as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. continues to rise.

Older people living in locations that are experiencing sharp increases in coronavirus cases may also need to “think about what actions” they can take to reduce their exposure to COVID-19, cautioned Messonnier in the telebriefing.

This can include strategies such as avoiding large public gatherings, staying home, and avoiding anyone who appears ill.

Social distancing can help people most at risk avoid infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure to the virus. Some of the tips the CDC recommends:

  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you’re sick.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched items and surfaces using regular household cleaning sprays or wipes.

A full list can be found here.

COVID-19 is also a lot like seasonal flu. From 70 to 85 percent of all flu-related deaths, and 50 to 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations, occur among those 65 years and over, according to the CDC.

But what about using face masks? Health officials firmly state that there is still no need for them in the community at this point.

According to the CDC, healthy people in the US shouldn’t wear them because they won’t protect against the novel coronavirus, and doing so could use up supplies healthcare providers need.

“We need to make sure those N95 masks are available for the doctors and nurses that are going to be taking care of individuals that have this illness,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said during a House Foreign Affairs hearing on February 27.

“And it really does displease me, to find people going out — there is no role for these masks in the community.”

According to the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, you may even increase your risk of infection if you wear a mask improperly. “Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus,” he explained in an interview with Fox News.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), during this health emergency, the public can help in four important ways:

  • We should recognize that COVID-19 is a new and concerning disease, but that outbreaks can be managed with the right response, and that most infected people will recover.
  • Start adopting and rigorously practicing the most important preventive measures for COVID-19: Frequently wash your hands and always cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
  • Keep updated on COVID-19 and its symptoms, like fever and dry cough, because the strategies and response activities will continue to change as we learn more information about the disease.
  • Prepare to actively support a response to COVID-19 in ways that include adopting more stringent “social distancing” practices and helping the high-risk elderly population.

What to Do If You Have Symptoms of COVID-19

If you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus that causes COVID-19, you should seek medical care.

You have several options for obtaining medical care, including being seen by your primary healthcare provider. The CDC recommends calling your provider first so that they can take the necessary steps to prepare for your visit and protect others from possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Some healthcare providers also offer virtual visits through your smartphone or laptop, so you may not need to leave your home for an initial assessment.

If you don’t have a primary healthcare provider, you can use this tool to find a local primary care office in your area.

If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Notify the operator that you have COVID-19 or suspect exposure to the virus that causes it. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.

Disclosure: Healthline maintains a partnership with some of the providers linked above and may receive compensation for services provided.

COVID-19 will not cause severe symptoms in many people who contract it. However, the elderly, especially those with preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, may be severely affected.

Experts say that older people and those who take medications to manage chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, should ensure they have enough medications on hand, as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. continues to rise.

The surgeon general of the United States and the CDC both emphasize that healthy people don’t need to use face masks at this point, and that improper use of one can increase the risk of infection.