Can I visit my elderly relatives? And other tips for coronavirus and older people

Emily Holden in Washington
Photograph: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS

People 60 and older are at far higher risk of getting very sick or dying from the coronavirus. And people 85 and over are even more vulnerable, with a death rate from the virus between 10% and 27%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Related: Have I already had coronavirus? How would I know and what should I do?

Dr Mary Tinetti, chief of geriatrics at Yale school of medicine and Yale New Haven hospital, explains what kinds of precautions they – and the people around them – must take.

Volunteer efforts are popping up to deliver supplies to older and more vulnerable people. Is that risky?

There really isn’t a right answer to your question. It is between a rock and a hard place. Is it better for people to go out in public and get their groceries or to have them delivered? If they’re in a place where the grocery store delivers then they should have it delivered. The ideal would probably be a single family member who picks up the groceries at a place that is safe and delivers it, perhaps cleaning off the containers.

Many people don’t have that option. In that case, they need to rely on volunteer corps. The volunteer should be carefully screened and have daily checks to make sure they are well. And reminded to wash their hands before touching anything.

Should people be visiting their older relatives and community members right now?

The data that we have now suggests that the risk of getting much sicker with the Covid is 60 and older. But it’s even people in their 40s and 50s if they have serious chronic conditions such as lung disease or heart failure.

It is such a big trade-off because interacting and being socially engaged is so important to get through this difficult time. But we know from what’s happened in other countries already that the best prevention is the more you social-distance and keep away.

There are exceptions, obviously. If a person is very frail and you’re worried they’re not going to live for a long time, then obviously there should be visiting, there should be interaction.

What would you say to people who say: ‘Well I don’t have symptoms so it’s safe for me to visit’?

I think we’re probably going to find that for every one person who has symptoms, there’s probably [many more] people who have the infection, who don’t have symptoms. And they are the ones that are infecting everybody else.

What if someone older in your life isn’t taking social distancing seriously?

It’s important to know where the behavior was coming from. And so I’ve asked them: “Why aren’t you doing this?” And if they say: “I don’t believe it’s a real problem. I think they’re overblowing it,” I think you can reiterate what we’ve known from other countries is that it’s, again, people in their 50s with illnesses and people 60 and older who seem to get it the worst.

The other thing I’m hearing from older people if they want to stay connected to younger people is, “Oh, I’ve gotta die of something.” My answer to that is, “Yes, we all have to die from something.” But the important thing to know here is when older people like yourself do get sick, you may not die right away. It could linger for a long time and be very uncomfortable for you. And it’s taking up the use of things like ventilators and intensive care beds to take care of you because you didn’t comply … at the expense of what could be one of your young relatives.

What should you do if an older person needs you to deliver food or medicine or check on them?

Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. It’s clear that hand-washing and social distance are the two biggest things to do. Wash your hands before you go in the door. Wash the doorknobs as you’re going in and out. Wash the package before you put it down. Lysol it or Clorox it. And if you’re in their living space, stay 6ft away.

Are you worried that the focus on older people could send the inaccurate message that younger people aren’t getting critically ill?

We love simple messages, and unfortunately Covid-19 didn’t get the message that it was supposed to be simple.

Young people and older people get Covid. Young people and older people with Covid do get sick and require hospitalization, so it’s a disease of all ages. That being said, most of the younger adults that are sick enough to be in the hospital [or need intensive care] … are likely to recover.