These people are at high-risk of contracting coronavirus

A nursing home near Seattle is suffering an outbreak of coronavirus, highlighting concerns that the elderly are at a heightened risk of contracting the disease.

Covid-19, also known as coronavirus, has reached the United States. Two deaths have been reported as of Monday, both in Washington state, including a man in his 50s and another man in his 70s. There have been confirmed cases in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, and thousands more are being tested.

Read: Coronavirus update: 89,197 cases, 3,048 deaths, worries about health care workers in Washington

One of the people who died was a resident at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash., which is now being monitored. Four other residents of the nursing home have been hospitalized, with three in critical condition, Kaiser Health News reported. There are 108 residents and 180 staff members — more than 50 are exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. Family members, friends, volunteers and vendors are suspended from visiting, the center said in a statement.

“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 more than 70 countries so far, and the U.S. has issued a travel advisory alert for some in particular: China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong. There were nearly 90,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 3,000 deaths, according to the latest report from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

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.”