This article was originally published on March 17, 2020. It was updated on June 30, 2020, to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.
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As events get rescheduled for the fall, schools remain closed and communities are urged to practice social distancing and abide by stay-at-home orders in light of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, you’ve probably heard that these actions are critical to help control the spread of the virus.
But limiting your social contact doesn’t just help protect you. It also helps protect the people who are most vulnerable to getting very sick from the virus.
Who are these especially vulnerable people? While the virus causes only mild symptoms in most people who are infected with it, in some it can lead to severe illness, including pneumonia and death. These serious complications of COVID-19 are most likely to develop in elderly people, as well as those who have weakened immune systems, or are immunocompromised, says infectious disease specialist Alan Taege, MD.
When people are immunocompromised, their body has a reduced ability to fight off and recover from infections. This could be because they have a certain chronic condition that affects the immune system, or because of certain medications they are taking. For example, some cancer treatments and medications used for autoimmune conditions weaken a person’s immune response, as do medicines that people take after having an organ transplant.
Here’s what you should know about protecting the most vulnerable populations.
A: The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, so we don’t yet understand exactly how it impacts specific groups of high-risk people. But, those who are thought to be most susceptible to serious complications of COVID-19 include people who:
A: Our immune system naturally becomes weaker as we age, which makes it harder for our bodies to fight off infections.
A: Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine that can prevent COVID-19, so we cannot prevent the disease. But there are things you can do to minimize your risk.
For starters, it’s extra important for older adults and those with underlying medical conditions to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place. It’s spread by droplets that come out the nose and mouth of someone who’s infected when they cough or sneeze, so you can get COVID-19 from being in close contact (within 6 feet or so) with an infected person who has these symptoms. You might also be able to get it from touching a surface that’s been contaminated with infected droplets.
To avoid exposure to the virus, it’s recommended that you:
If you develop COVID-19 symptoms such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, muscle or body aches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea, call your doctor.
A: If you’re unsure whether you should keep your appointment, call your healthcare provider and ask. Some appointments might be able to be rescheduled, or handled virtually through a telemedicine visit or by phone. If you are scheduled to receive a treatment or have an exam that can’t be handled this way, plan to keep your appointment unless your provider tells you otherwise. Healthcare facilities are taking special precautions to protect the health and safety of patients during this time.
A: Don’t stop taking your medications without talking to your healthcare provider first. Just as there is risk associated with having a compromised immune system, there is also risk associated with stopping medication suddenly and potentially having disease flares. If you have questions or concerns, or if you become sick, talk with your doctor.
A: The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face coverings in public, especially in places where it’s hard to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and another person. Cloth face masks are being recommended because we now know individuals with COVID-19 could have mild or no symptoms, while still spreading the virus to others.
The cloth face coverings recommended by the CDC are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.
A: Consider the following:
A: The CDC recommends that you stay home and separate yourself from other people and animals in your home. If you develop potential COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, call your doctor, who will let you know what you should do next. If you develop severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, a severe headache or chest pain, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
A: You can start by checking in on your love one’s well-being frequently via phone, email or social media. You might also consider:
A: It’s normal to feel uneasy during this uncertain time. But remember that, while this virus is new, respiratory illnesses are not, and healthcare providers are trained to manage them. It’s also important to stay up to date with the latest news from trusted sources such as the CDC, but take a break from media coverage or social media if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Do normal relaxing activities such as music, yoga or exercise at home.