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Common Questions and Answers About COVID-19 for Older Adults and People with Chronic Health Conditions

According to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in humans and can cause illnesses ranging from mild respiratory infections like the common cold to serious illnesses, such as pneumonia or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). COVID-19 has been detected in more than 200 countries, including the US.

Why are older adults and those with chronic health conditions at higher risk?

Older adults and individuals with chronic health conditions including heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, cancer, and other conditions are at higher risk for more serious COVID-19 illness and death. This is because our immune systems grow weaker as we age, which makes it more challenging for older adults to fight off infectious diseases. Chronic diseases are also more common with age, and can compromise the immune system, making older adults more vulnerable to serious complications. CDC has issued guidance for people who are at the highest risk for severe illness from the virus. It is imperative that older adults and others who are at high risk follow the advice of CDC. The best way to protect yourself, your family, and your community is to get vaccinated.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and how is it different from flu and allergies?

The main symptoms of COVID-19, which may appear between 2 to 14 days after exposure, can include: fever or chills, coughing, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. There are other symptoms that are not as common—like a rash or discoloration of the hands or feet—that may be a sign of COVID-19 so contact your healthcare professional if you are concerned. Not everyone with COVID-19 will experience symptoms, or symptoms may be mild enough that they are dismissed, but individuals may still be contagious without symptoms.

When should I call a healthcare professional?

Call 911 and seek emergency care if you or a loved one have trouble breathing, feel pain or pressure in the chest, experience new confusion, are unable to wake or stay awake, have bluish lips or face, or think you may need immediate care.

If you think you may have COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who had COVID-19, contact a healthcare professional or go to the nearest testing facility.

How do they test for COVID-19?

There are a number of different tests for COVID-19, some involving swabbing the nose and throat, while others required taking samples of saliva. Others may require a blood draw. Note that COVID-19 tests that detect active infection will not detect previous infection or antibodies.

If you are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms, you do not need to be tested after exposure to someone who has COVID-19.

Will I have to pay for COVID-19 vaccination or testing?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has waived cost-sharing for COVID-19 vaccination, testing, and treatment to ensure all patients who need it have access to care. Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans will cover lab tests for COVID-19 with no out-of-pocket costs, any necessary hospital care, and telehealth services including virtual check-ins and full visits for those living in rural areas.

How can I best protect myself?

Everyone should practice the following healthy habits to help prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible
  • Wear a face mask (until you are fully vaccinated)
  • Practice social distancing—stay ~6 feet apart
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue (or your elbow)
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick and stay home while you are sick

How can I help loved ones at risk?

Everyone has a role to play in reducing community spread. The same recommendations for people at risk should be adhered to by everyone to help protect the more vulnerable in our communities. Businesses, schools, and local and federal government should all work together to mitigate community spread of COVID-19 and help protect older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

If you are a caregiver for someone in a long-term care facility, respect their rules, ask about the health of the other residents frequently, and know the plan if there is an outbreak.

If your loved ones live alone, check on them frequently and find out what services your local Area Agency on Aging offers.

What should I do if I get sick?

If you do get sick, first call a healthcare professional. Unless you need immediate medical care, you should stay at home to avoid spreading your illness. 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. Determine who can provide you with care if your caregiver gets sick. If you or a loved one needs help, contact your local public health department to connect with caregiving services.

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19, call 911 and get medical attention immediately. In adults, emergency warning signs include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse and/or
  • Bluish lips or face

What are other reliable resources for the most up-to-date information?

Learn more about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines


Note: This resource is based on content developed jointly by NFID and the Alliance for Aging Research.

Updated: June 2021