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Protecting seniors and the vulnerable from COVID-19

March 17, 2020
senior woman visiting her physician

As the novel coronavirus spreads around the globe, the populations most vulnerable to the disease have been older adults and people with pre-existing conditions, such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or compromised immune systems.

Data collected from known cases of COVID-19 indicate that people over age 60 are more likely to experience serious illness, with the risk increasing in people age 70 and older.

This is especially important given that more than a million people in the United States are in nursing homes and another 800,000 are in residential care communities, where contagion from influenza, colds and even bacterial infections are of serious concern.

By following key recommendations to stop the spread and lessen the impact of the virus that causes COVID-19, we can ensure that older adults and people with existing health problems have a better chance of remaining healthy, says Dr. Lisa Gibbs, director of the UCI Health SeniorHealth Center.

Preventing COVID-19

The novel coronavirus can cause mild to severe respiratory infections, with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). It spreads by droplets from the coughs and sneezes of infected individuals that enter the body by nose, mouth and eyes.

For people at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of age or long-term health problems, the CDC recommends the following actions to prevent infection:

  • Stay home and practice social distancing.
  • If you need to leave home for essential reasons, such as healthcare and food, avoid crowds and contact with sick people. Keep space between yourself and others.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content if soap and water are unavailable.
  • If you have to sneeze or cough, do so into the curve of your elbow or into a tissue that you then discard.
  • Use alternatives to shaking hands with people.
  • Avoid touching elevator buttons, door handles and handrails; use a tissue or sleeve instead.
  • If you are sick, stay home to avoid spreading any germs.
  • Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer available at home and in the car.
  • Avoid cruises and nonessential air travel.

Social distancing, not social isolation

Older adults and people with existing health conditions sometimes deal with anxiety and depression. Recommendations to stay home or to and stay a safe distance from others to avoid exposure to COVID-19, may reinforce such feelings in some people.

It doesn’t have to, says Gibbs, a professor of family medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at UCI School of Medicine.

“Social distancing is required to slow the transmission of COVID-19, but this need not be social isolation,” she says. “People with depression or anxiety should be especially proactive by calling friends and family, and using social media.”

It’s also good idea to limit the barrage of media information about the novel coronavirus and its effects.

“Watching the news constantly may also increase anxiety. People should be encouraged to find one or two sites that provide accurate information and check them only periodically through the day,” Gibbs says.

When exposure to COVID-19 is a concern

Should there be an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community, the CDC recommends that vulnerable people stay home as much as possible to reduce the risk of exposure.

To prepare for an extended stay at home:

  • Stock up on groceries, medical supplies and over-the-counter medications
  • Contact your health provider to obtain extra prescription medications (through mail order if necessary) if you need to stay home for a prolonged period of time
  • In the home, frequently wipe down tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks and cell phones

It also helps to have food brought in by family and social networks, and to stay connected to others by phone or email in case a caregiver is needed.

Pay attention to symptoms

It’s also important to pay close attention to symptoms and warning signs of any respiratory infection, including the seasonal flu:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever

More alarming symptoms include:

  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Bluish lips and face

Consult your health provider for these or other symptoms that are concerning. Unless this is an emergency, stay home and contact your healthcare professional for guidance.