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An elderly woman wears a face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus while being pushed in her wheelchair in Monterey Park, Calif., on March 10, 2020.FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

While illness due to the new coronavirus is generally mild, about one in five people who catch it need hospital care – and older individuals appear to be at higher risk of developing serious illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Canada’s first death from the virus was an elderly man, who lived in a North Vancouver nursing home, the site of the country’s first outbreak.

What should older adults do to protect themselves? Here’s a guide.

What can I do to stay safe from COVID-19?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through airborne droplets by coughing or sneezing, through touching a surface those droplets have touched, or through personal contact with infected people.

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly

The World Health Organization recommends regular hand-washing and physical distancing – that is, keeping at least two metres from someone with a cough. If you have to cough or sneeze, do it into your sleeve or a tissue, not your hands. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose if you can.

The CDC says to frequently clean dirty surfaces with soap and water before disinfecting them.

  • If you show symptoms of COVID-19, seek medical attention and do what your health-care provider recommends. That may include staying home from work or school and getting lots of rest until the symptoms go away.

COVID-19 is much more serious for older adults. As a precaution, older adults should continue frequent and thorough hand-washing, and avoid exposure to people with respiratory symptoms.

Check the WHO’s information page for more details on the virus, and The Globe and Mail’s guide of what health officials say is helpful for the public to do or not do about it.

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Why are older adults at greater risk?

COVID-19 is much more serious for older adults. Data published last month by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate the fatality rate was 14.8 per cent among those age 80 and older, and 8 per cent among those ages 70 to 79. By comparison, the fatality rate was 0.2 per cent among those ages 10 to 39.

Explaining why older adults are more vulnerable involves some educated guesswork, says emergency physician Michael Curry, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Older people tend to have other health problems, he says. For instance, respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can make it difficult to clear secretions from the lungs, and diabetes can make it more difficult to fight off infections.

Also, your immune system may not function as vigorously when you are older, he says.

What specific precautions should I take?

Respiratory infections are often spread by hand contact, so the simplest thing you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, regardless of your age, Dr. Curry says.

“It is one of the best defences we have,” he says.

If you’re an older adult, you may want to avoid exposure to people with respiratory symptoms, including grandchildren who have a cold, and visiting daycares or hospitals, Dr. Curry suggests. But if you’re not ill, it’s neither realistic nor necessary for you to become a hermit and stay home-bound, he says.

What can I do to ensure a long-term care home is safe for residents?

A viral outbreak can be particularly challenging for nursing homes, especially when they’re short-staffed. But don’t panic; these homes are experienced in handling outbreaks of flu and other illnesses, and have protocols in place, says Karen Henderson, founder of the Long Term Care Planning Network and an independent specialist in aging and long-term care.

Have a face-to-face conversation with someone from the home to learn what the protocols are, she suggests. Ask what you can expect, in terms of the care for residents. Some questions she suggests: What will happen if a resident shows symptoms? What is the home’s disinfecting protocol? Are staff cleaning equipment, such as patient lifts, between uses? Are they cleaning telephones and other communications devices? Are staff being told to avoid sharing items like pens and notepads, which can carry droplets? What is the home doing to screen visitors and suppliers? Are staff keeping the dining room open? What happens if a staff member is ill?

Ms. Henderson says communication between care homes and families is extremely important, but can fall by the wayside during times such as this. For example, she noted a quick search online revealed multiple homes had no information about COVID-19 on their websites. She has also heard complaints from families that phones are not being answered by staff. While this is understandable, she says, care home managers should be assigning someone to answer phones, updating their websites and sending out regular e-mail updates.

“It’s when families don’t know what’s happening that they become panic-stricken,” she says.

I spend my winters south of the border. Should I cut my stay short and return to Canada?

The federal government has asked all Canadians travelling abroad to come home right now, but only if they’re not showing symptoms of COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered airlines to bar people from flying into Canada if they have symptoms. If you plan to travel with someone who isn’t a Canadian citizen, a Canadian permanent resident, a U.S. citizen or part of a protected group like diplomats, they will be denied entry to Canada.

People should be reviewing their travel insurance coverage prior to travelling anyway, but now is a good time to get in touch with you travel insurance provider to make sure you don’t run into any issues, says Evan Rachkovsky, director of research and communications for the advocacy organization Canadian Snowbird Association. COVID-19 is not a pre-existing condition, so it should be covered by most travel insurance policies, he says. However, as the novel coronavirus becomes a travel concern, a number of insurers are updating their policies to no longer include the virus as a reason to honour a cancellation claim.

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