Updated: Oct 6
How Big is the Problem?
Is the coronavirus or COVID-19 a real problem? Or is the media fanning the flames of hysteria for a condition that is little more than a new strain of the flu?
To cut through the confusion, we consulted with Debra King and Pati Bedwell, both elder care coordinators on staff at Takacs McGinnis. “No matter what you’re hearing on TV, the corona virus isn’t hype, it’s a real threat, especially to older adults,” said Debra.
Though COVID-19 and the flu share a few common symptoms, including a dry cough and fever, COVID-19 is more infectious than flu and it’s more likely to kill than flu. COVID-19 appears much deadlier than seasonal flu, and quite possibly deadlier than the flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, each of which killed more than 1 million people around the world. Those pandemics had estimated case fatality ratios far below 1%, and COVID-19 may kill more than 1 in 100 people who get sick with it.
The flu and COVID-19 kill in different ways. Many deaths from flu are caused by secondary bacterial pneumonia and heart attacks that develop after the flu has weakened someone’s resistance. With COVID-19, most deaths are caused by acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which causes already-damaged lungs to fill with fluid and makes breathing difficult. Unlike pneumonia, there is no pharmaceutical treatment for ARDS. That is why a potential shortage of ventilators is so dangerous: They are the last-ditch supportive treatment for COVID-19 while the body heals itself.
According to an analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation, COVID-19 is especially threatening because there’s no vaccine, no treatment, and no natural immunity. Based on current understanding of risk, 41% of adults ages 18 and older in the U.S. have a higher risk of developing more serious illness if they become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, because they are older or have serious underlying health conditions, or both. Information from the World Health Organization supports this threat, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also weighed in on who’s likely to be most vulnerable. “Many older adults have underlying conditions that put them at risk of getting more seriously ill if they get infected with coronavirus, which is why these extraordinary measures are so critical,” Pati said. “The nation’s 1.3 million nursing home residents are particularly prone to severe complications from COVID-19 due to chronic conditions, compromised immune systems and advanced age, as well as the nature of their living environment.”
Nursing Homes Closed to Visitors
If you’re worried because your loved one’s nursing home is on lock down and no visitors are permitted, there’s a good reason. On Friday, March 13, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced critical new measures designed to keep America’s nursing home residents safe from the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). The measures are based on the newest recommendations from the (CDC). “Nursing homes have been told to do everything possible to prevent COVID-19 from entering their doors, either by visitors or staff,” said Pati “Most facilities have prohibited visitors except in special circumstances.”
How long with the lockdown last? There’s no way to tell, Pati admitted. “Though we can’t predict how long the moratorium on visitors will continue, it’s important that family caregivers stay connected with their loved ones,” said noted. “Some facilities have identified a staff member to serve as a primary connection point for families and residents until the crisis passes. Phone calls, FaceTime, and other video calls are also an option.”
Though skeptics believe that these actions constitute a massive overreaction, if you’re caring for an elderly loved one, it’s important to take protective measures. “Though there’s no need to go out and stock up on toilet paper, there are things you can do to mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” Debra counseled. “It may be too late now to prevent this coronavirus from spreading in our communities, but by working together to limit and slow that spread, we can save lives.”
For Older Adults Living at Home
If you’re looking after older relatives who are living on their own or living with other family members, let common sense be your guide as you help them prepare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for people at higher risk of serious illness, advising them to avoid crowds, cruises and non-essential air travel, and to stay home as much as possible to further reduce their risk of being exposed. “The same recommendations we give to people to avoid getting and spreading the flu will help slow down the spread of COVID-19,” said Debra.
Practice social distancing. This is especially important for older adults and medically vulnerable people. Avoid shaking hands with others. Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Avoid all non-essential travel including plane trips, and especially cruise ships. Put distance between yourself and other people.
Avoid touching your face, nose, eyes, etc.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, or having been in a public place.
If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid touching surfaces in public places, such as elevator buttons, door handles, and handrails. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or finger if you must touch something.
Clean and disinfect your home and vehicles.
Practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks, cell phones, and TV remotes.
Stay in touch with others by phone or email. You may need to ask for help from friends, family, neighbors, community health workers, and others if you become sick.
Look for ways to have food brought to your home through family, social, or commercial networks.
Limit contact with pets and animals. If you must care for a pet while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact and wear a face mask.
How can you tell if you’re infected? Watch for potential COVID-19 symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Emergency warning signs include difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, and bluish lips or face. “These are just a few of the signs that you need to get medical attention immediately,” Debra advised. “Don’t go to the emergency room or the doctor’s office where you might infect others. Stay home, call your healthcare provider, and tell them about your symptoms. This will help them take care of you and keep other people from getting infected.”
People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 can isolate and recover at home during their illness. “If you have a mild infection, it’s best to restrict activities outside the home, except for getting medical care,” added Pati. “This online guide from the CDC explains how to take care of yourself at home.”
According to Debra, preparing to keep an elderly loved one safe in the event of a pandemic isn’t all that different from creating an emergency plan in the event of a flood, earthquake, or weather event. “If there’s an outbreak in your community, you’ll want to have everything in order in the event that you’re asked to stay at home for a prolonged period of time,” she said. “Contact your healthcare provider to obtain extra necessary medications to have on hand. If you cannot get extra medications, consider using mail-order for medications. Be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies to treat fever and other symptoms. And finally, have enough household items and groceries on hand so that your loved one will be prepared if it’s necessary to self-quarantine.”