Older people account for at least half of the U.S. coronavirus cases — are seniors at risk?

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The U.S. has 12 reported cases of coronavirus across the country — and at least half of them are of people age 50 and older.

Six states — Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin — have patients with confirmed cases of coronavirus, though people are under investigation in a total of 36 states and U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the six patients with coronavirus in California, four are in their 50s, and both Illinois patients are in their 60s. The 12th case — reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Service — did not specify the patient’s age.

A total of 237 people have been tested for coronavirus in the U.S. as of Friday, and 100 more investigations are pending, the CDC reported. Of the 210 people who were tested for the virus in the U.S. in January, 46 were between 50 and 64 years old (or 22%) and another four who were older than 65 (2%), according to a new CDC report about coronavirus evaluations.

“This does appear to affect seniors worse than people as a whole,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But there isn’t enough data on the spectrum of severity, he said. “We tend to see more severe cases and not less severe cases. Hopefully that will become clearer in the next few weeks,” he said.

See: As coronavirus infections exceed 20,000, here’s how it spread so rapidly

The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, late last year, has affected 25 countries so far. There are more than 31,000 cases and 638 deaths around the world, the World Health Organization reported. No patients in the U.S. have died, but many of those who have died in other countries were elderly. Preliminary data from China’s National Health Commission show patients who died from coronavirus were in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and exhibited fever, coughing and shortness of breath, Bloomberg reported earlier this year.

The coronavirus also comes at a time when many people are sniffling, coughing and coming down with a fever. The winter is known as cold and flu season, and older Americans are at a higher risk of developing these illnesses. “Respiratory viruses are more severe in older individuals,” said Mark Mulligan, director of NYU Langone Health’s division of infectious diseases and immunology. “As we age, our immune system ages and it is not as effective.”

If an older individual — or anyone, really — starts feeling sick, they shouldn’t focus on it potentially being the coronavirus, but instead get to a doctor. “It can be another respiratory virus,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. The symptoms of coronavirus and influenza are similar, and the flu can be just as dangerous for someone older.

Of the approximately 34,000 estimated flu-related deaths in the 2018-2019 season, more than 25,500 of them were of people 65 and older, according to the CDC. Of the more than 490,000 flu-related hospitalizations, nearly 280,000 were estimated to be for patients of the same age group.

Older individuals may also suffer from complications arising from the flu, such as pneumonia or worsening chronic illnesses, like asthma or heart disease, the CDC said.

Also see: Chinese doctor who sounded early alarm about coronavirus outbreak dies

Many Americans are rushing to buy surgical face masks to prevent coronavirus, but Adalja said that’s not necessary. Often times, people wear them improperly, and a sharp incline in consumer demand for the masks could mean a shortage for people who need them — mainly, health care providers.

Face masks may stop people from touching their face, or raise awareness, but there isn’t enough research to support how helpful these masks are for preventing diseases, Hanage said. They can help from the wearer spreading the disease, though.

Instead, those looking to be proactive should practice hand hygiene. Hand sanitizer is beneficial, but so is “good old fashioned soap and water,” Hanage said. The flu shot may not prevent coronavirus, but it can save someone from coming down with influenza, and help doctors diagnose patients, he added. Individuals should also avoid going to work when they’re sick, practice social isolation until at least 24 hours have passed after having a fever and cover their mouth with their arm or a handkerchief when they cough, Mulligan said.

Another crucial thing to keep in mind: “This is not a time for panic in the U.S.,” Mulligan said. “This is a time for awareness and continuing to listen to the situation.”

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