Why seniors are at greater risk from COVID-19 coronavirus

Senior coughing

As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to sweep across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging older people—among those most vulnerable to the illness —to hunker down in their homes to avoid potential exposure to the virus.
Though the illness can affect people of all ages, older adults and people with pre-existing medical conditions are twice as likely to develop serious complications from coronavirus, the CDC reports. Eight in 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. have occurred in adults 65 years of age and older.

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Seniors are at greater risk for complications from coronavirus and similar illnesses in part because of natural immune system changes that occur with age, says Dr. Ernie Gelb, a family medicine and geriatrics physician at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road. Plus, seniors are more likely to have chronic illnesses such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, which can hinder the body’s ability to recover from illness.

Preventive measures

Dr. Gelb says he’s encouraging all of his older patients, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions or compromised immune function, to closely adhere to the CDC’s advice and stay home as much as possible. Individuals with compromised immune function can include cancer patients, individuals who take biologic medications for arthritis and transplant recipients.
“There’s no reason to take unnecessary risks,” he says. “The best way to avoid becoming sick from the coronavirus is to avoid exposure to it.”
In addition to encouraging seniors to stay home, Dr. Gelb says seniors should also follow other steps outlined by the CDC to help protect themselves.

  • Stock up on supplies such as food, prescription medications and over-the-counter medicines to treat fever and flu-like symptoms.
  • Wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, nose, eyes and ears.
  • Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.
  • Consider mail-ordering medications.
  • If you do venture out, practice social distancing to reduce face-to-face contact with others.
  • Use disinfectant to regularly clean your home. Most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work.
  • Stay abreast of what’s happening in the community and follow local, state and federal recommendations.

If you become ill

If you develop symptoms of the coronavirus, which include fever, cough and shortness of breath, use the no-cost MUSC Health virtual screening tool at muschealth.org or call your primary care provider for instructions on what to do next.

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If you do not have a primary care provider, call 1-866-TIDELANDS and the health system’s team will help you find one.
Make sure to call your health care provider before coming to the provider’s office so appropriate precautions can be taken. In case of emergency, always call 911.

Taking care of an older loved one

It’s a good idea for individuals who rely on others for care to make plans to have a back-up caregiver in case the primary point of contact becomes ill, Dr. Gelb says.
Families and caregivers of seniors can play a critical role in keeping their loved ones healthy and protected during the coronavirus pandemic, he added.

  • Be sure you know what medications your loved one is taking and take steps so the individual has extra supplies on hand.
  • Monitor medical supplies, such as oxygen, dialysis and diabetes equipment, and devise a back-up plan should supplies run low.
  • Stock the individual’s food pantry with non-perishable items to minimize trips to the market.
  • Regularly check up on the individual.
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