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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Cases fall after omicron's record-breaking surge

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  • New program makes over-the-counter COVID tests free for Medicare beneficiaries. As of April 4, Americans with Medicare Part B can now get up to eight free FDA-cleared over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month from participating pharmacies and health care providers. Participating retailers include Albertsons Companies, Costco Pharmacy, CVS, Food Lion, Giant Food, the Giant Company, Hannaford Pharmacies, H-E-B Pharmacy, Hy-Vee Pharmacy, Kroger Family of Pharmacies, Rite Aid Corp., Shop & Stop, Walgreens and Walmart. If you are in a Medicare Advantage plan, the tests will be covered outside of your existing plan’s coverage, and in addition to any over-the-counter tests that may be covered under the plan as a supplemental benefit, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) said in its announcement. Medicare won’t cover over-the-counter COVID-19 tests if you only have Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) coverage, but you may be able to get free tests through other programs. To get the tests, bring your red, white and blue Medicare card (even if you have a Medicare Advantage plan or Medicare Part D plan). There are no up-front costs: The participating pharmacies will bill Medicare for the tests on your behalf. People with Medicare can also get no-cost COVID-19 tests through health care providers at over 20,000 testing sites nationwide, as well as no-cost PCR tests and antigen tests through a lab when a doctor or other health care professional orders one. What’s more, all U.S. households can order four free COVID-19 tests from the federal government at You can find more information on Medicare’s new initiative, including participating pharmacy locations, on the CMS website
  • BA.2 takes over as dominant virus strain. Omicron’s sibling variant, known as BA.2, is now the dominant variant circulating in the U.S., accounting for more than 70 percent of all cases, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. Experts predict BA.2’s takeover will result in an uptick in COVID-19 cases, but don’t anticipate a swell of infections like the one we saw in January and February with omicron. “I think it goes back to that issue of just coming off of the initial omicron surges, there’s high levels of natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity in the community. So it’s probably keeping this particular variant somewhat at bay,” Matthew Binnicker, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic, said in a March 31 news briefing.
  • Feds launch new website. The White House launched a new federal website March 30 that it says will provide a one-stop shopping place for all things COVID-19. Among the site’s features is a tool that lets people find out the status of the infection in their county. Users can also find out where to get a vaccine, see locations that participate in the “test-to-treat” program where people who test positive can immediately get oral treatment, and locate places to get free masks. The site also includes a link to the website to order free at-home tests.
  • FDA authorizes second booster shot. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light for people age 50 and older to get a second COVID-19 booster shot and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has agreed and updated its vaccine recommendations. “Emerging evidence suggests that a second booster dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine improves protection against severe COVID-19 and is not associated with new safety concerns,” FDA officials said in announcing the amendment to the emergency use authorization (EUA) that already provides for an initial booster shot. Under this new authorization, individuals age 50 and older can get a second booster of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine at least four months after getting a first booster. The FDA also says that individuals 12 years and older who are immunocompromised or have had certain organ transplants may also be eligible for the Pfizer booster, while individuals with such health conditions who are 18 or older can get a second Moderna booster. In addition, the FDA update says people who are immunocompromised and may have already gotten four shots will be able to get a fifth. The additional booster is "especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19 as they are the most likely to benefit from receiving an additional booster dose at this time," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
  • J&J vaccine recipients are better protected with second mRNA dose, study shows. People who received the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) coronavirus vaccine followed by an mRNA shot were less likely to wind up in the emergency room or to be hospitalized with COVID-19, compared to people who received two J&J shots, a study published March 29 by the CDC shows. Researchers found that one J&J shot was 24 percent effective against emergency/urgent care visits for COVID-19 during the omicron surge. A second vaccine dose enhanced that protection against ER/urgent care visits — vaccine effectiveness was 54 percent with two J&J shots and 79 percent if that second shot was either a Pfizer or a Moderna mRNA vaccine. When it comes to hospitalizations, vaccine effectiveness was 31 percent with one J&J shot, 67 percent with two J&J shots and 78 percent with one J&J shot and one mRNA dose. Meanwhile, vaccine effectiveness with three mRNA doses was 83 percent for ER visits and 90 percent for hospitalization. The study’s authors conclude that all adults who received mRNA vaccines for their primary series should receive an mRNA booster dose when they are eligible, and that adults who received a J&J vaccine the first time around should “preferentially receive” an mRNA vaccine booster at least two months later, “or a homologous [J&J] vaccine booster dose if mRNA vaccine is contraindicated or unavailable.” Shortly after the study was released, the CDC said that adults who received a primary vaccine and booster dose of J&J's product at least 4 months ago may now receive a second booster dose using an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Moderna to ask FDA for authorization to inoculate children under age 6. Moderna says it will ask the FDA for permission to provide its COVID-19 vaccine to children under age 6, even though its clinical trial showed that the shot was 44 percent effective in preventing symptomatic illness among youngsters 6 months to 2 years old and 37 percent effective in children 2 through 5 years old. Both percentages are far below the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines among adults and older children when they were first authorized. According to the company, its vaccine trial among young children meets the criteria the FDA sets for a successful vaccine. Moderna says in a news release that the immune responses the trial generated were equivalent to those that protected young adults pre-omicron. This would be a two-dose vaccine, and each shot would be a quarter of the strength of the adult dose. But the company said it is preparing to evaluate a booster dose for all pediatric populations. Moderna is expected to file its emergency use authorization (EUA) application in the coming weeks. Currently, Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine is the only one available to Americans ages 5 to 18. Pfizer is expected to soon release its results from a trial of children under 5.
  • Study suggests COVID-19 could increase risk of developing diabetes. New research looking at a large collection of patient records found that individuals who had COVID-19 — even a mild or asymptomatic case — experienced an increased risk of developing diabetes after a coronavirus infection. The study was published March 21 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. The reason for the association is not entirely clear, the researchers note, but an accompanying letter stated that the data has “major implications for clinical policy and public health,” considering the number of people (more than 472 million) who have been infected with the coronavirus around the globe. “Any COVID-19-related increases in diabetes incidence could lead to unprecedented cases of diabetes worldwide — wreaking havoc on already over-stretched and under-resourced clinical and public health systems globally, with devastating tolls in terms of deaths and suffering,” the letter’s authors write.

  • Hospitalization rates were highest among Black Americans during the omicron surge. New data published March 18 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that hospitalization rates among Black adults were nearly four times as high as rates among white adults during the winter omicron surge. What’s more, it reached the highest rate observed in any racial and ethnic group since the start of the pandemic, according to the report, which looked at data from 99 counties across 14 states. People who were unvaccinated were 12 times more likely to be hospitalized during omicron’s January peak than those who were vaccinated and boosted, the researchers found; a lower proportion of Black adults had been vaccinated and boosted compared with white adults, the study notes. The high rate of hospitalization among Blacks may be due to other factors, including increased prevalence of underlying medical conditions, increased community-level exposure and poor access to health care, the researchers point out. “Implementing strategies that result in the equitable receipt of COVID-19 vaccinations, through building vaccine confidence, raising awareness of the benefits of vaccination, and removing barriers to vaccination access among persons with disproportionately higher hospitalization from COVID-19, including Black adults, is an urgent public health priority,” the report’s authors write. 

Answers to the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19.

How can you catch COVID-19?  

COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by a virus, SARS-CoV-2 (the new coronavirus). It’s spread in three main ways, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can catch COVID-19 by breathing in air if you are close to an infected person who is exhaling small droplets and particles that contain the virus. You can also get it if those small droplets and particles land in your eyes, nose or mouth (likely through coughs or sneezes), or if you have virus particles on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

Who is at risk for COVID-19?

Anyone can get COVID-19, but some people are more at risk for what experts call “severe disease,” at which time hospitalization or intensive care may be required. Older adults are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people 50 or older — and the risk increases with age.

Adults of any age with an underlying medical condition are also at increased risk for complications from a coronavirus infection, including people with:  

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung diseases, including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma (moderate to severe), interstitial lung disease, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension
  • Dementia or other neurological conditions
  • Diabetes (type 1 or type 2)
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies or hypertension)
  • HIV infection
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system)
  • Liver disease
  • Mental health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders
  • Overweight and obesity (defined as a body mass index of 25 or greater)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Smoking, current or former
  • Solid organ or blood stem cell transplant (includes bone marrow transplants)
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease, which affects blood flow to the brain
  • Substance use disorders (such as alcohol, opioid or cocaine use disorder)
  • Tuberculosis

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What can you do to reduce your risk?

Get vaccinated and boosted. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially approved two vaccines — a two-shot series from Pfizer-BioNTech and another two-shot series from Moderna. It has also issued an emergency use authorization (called an EUA) for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson (J&J). However, the CDC now recommends the use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over J&J’s product.

All three vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Health officials are encouraging everyone 5 and older to get vaccinated (shots for younger populations are still being evaluated), including people who have had COVID-19 in the past. Adults 18 and older are also eligible for booster shots to ramp up their protection against COVID, especially in the wake of the highly transmissible omicron variant.  People 12-17 who were vaccinated with Pfizer can also get a booster shot. 

Other ways to lower the likelihood of getting sick from COVID-19: Wear a face mask in public indoor settings settings (see the CDC's new guidance on when one might be needed in your community); avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces; put at least 6 feet between yourself and others not in your household; and wash your hands often.

Do the vaccines have side effects?

It’s common to experience mild to moderate side effects after getting vaccinated, such as soreness in the arm, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, nausea, fever or chills — but these are temporary “and normal signs that your body is building protection,” the CDC says.

To date, no long-term side effects have been detected.

A small number of vaccine recipients have experienced adverse reactions to the shots. These serious events after COVID-19 vaccination “are rare but may occur,” the CDC says. Anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction, has occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the U.S. This is why you may be asked to wait about 15 minutes after your shot or booster to monitor for symptoms. Vaccine providers are equipped with medicines to quickly treat the reaction. 

Health officials are also monitoring reports of myocarditis or pericarditis in some adolescents and younger adults after vaccination with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Most of these patients who received care responded well to medicine and felt better quickly, the CDC says. 

Another uncommon event that has been linked to J&J’s vaccine is a rare but serious clotting disorder, called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. Fifty-four cases of the condition were confirmed as of August out of about 14 million doses administered; nine people have died from it. Young women in their 30s and 40s are most at risk. After reviewing evidence of the adverse event, the CDC decided on Dec. 16, 2021, to recommend the Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines over J&J’s product. J&J’s vaccine, however, is still available to those who are “unable or unwilling” to get vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna.

Can you get COVID-19 even if you’re fully vaccinated?

The COVID-19 vaccines can help to prevent a coronavirus infection, but importantly, they are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, unvaccinated individuals are about 16 times more likely to be hospitalized from a coronavirus infection than vaccinated people, federal data show. And compared to individuals who are vaccinated and boosted, unvaccinated people aged 50 and older are upwards of 45 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.

Despite these protections, the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at stopping the virus — and preliminary data show that omicron is better at sneaking around the vaccines than previous variants — so it is still possible for fully vaccinated individuals to get COVID-19. This is called a “breakthrough infection.”

While fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infections are less likely to develop serious illness from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, they can still be contagious and spread the virus to others. Wearing a mask in indoor public settings can help prevent people with asymptomatic or mild illness from unknowingly spreading the virus to others.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms that typically appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, including: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea 

This list is not exhaustive, and some more unusual symptoms have been noted throughout the pandemic — from cognitive complications to skin rashes. 

A COVID-19 test can help you determine if you have an infection. You can also check the CDC’s interactive guide for advice on appropriate medical care.  

Most people with COVID-19 can recover at home. However, if you develop emergency warning signs — pain or pressure in the chest; new disorientation or confusion; pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds; difficulty breathing; or an inability to wake or stay awake — get medical attention immediately.  

What should I know about testing? 

Testing can help keep you and others around you safe. The CDC says you should get tested for COVID-19 if: 

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • You have had close contact with someone with confirmed COVID-19.
  • You have been asked to get tested by a health care provider or state or local health department.

Many places, like schools and workplaces, also require COVID-19 tests as part of routine screening.

Your health care provider should be able to administer a COVID-19 test. You can also contact your local health department to find out about testing locations.

Another option: The FDA has authorized a handful of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests for at-home use. These so-called rapid antigen tests require a nasal swab and can deliver results in about 15 minutes. Many major retailers sell these tests; the federal government is also sending them to Americans for freeLearn more about them here.  

What should you do if you get sick?

It’s important to stay home and separate yourself from others for at least 5 days if you test positive for COVID-19, even if you don’t develop symptoms and don’t feel sick — and you should wear a mask when around others for at least 10 days. If your symptoms persist after five days, you may need to isolate for longer.  The CDC has isolation guidelines for specific scenarios, including for people who are immunocompromised. Stay hydrated, keep track of your symptoms, and keep in touch with your health care provider. You may qualify for a treatment that can help reduce your risk of developing complications.

If you notice any of the following, seek immediate medical attention: trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, depending on skin tone.  

Are there treatments?

So far, the FDA has approved just one treatment for COVID-19 — the antiviral drug remdesivir, which is for people hospitalized with COVID-19 and those at risk for being hospitalized. A few other therapies have EUAs from the FDA, including monoclonal antibody treatments, which help to mimic the body’s immune system and fight off a viral infection. A newly authorized monoclonal antibody, called bebtelovimab, works against both omicron and its subvariant, BA.2, health officials say. The FDA, however, has halted the use of two previously authorized monoclonal antibodies after discovering they were not effective against omicron, despite working well when up against the delta variant.

And on Dec. 22, the FDA authorized a first-of-its-kind treatment for COVID: A prescription pill from Pfizer that can help keep a coronavirus infection from causing serious illness in people who are most at risk for COVID complications. A similar pill from drugmaker Merck received the OK from regulators soon after. Unlike other COVID treatments, which are administered in health care facilities by way of an injection or infusion, these oral medications are dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home.

What about travel during the pandemic?

Before you make travel plans, be sure to double-check any rules pertaining to your destination and mode of transportation. Many states, cities and countries have travel restrictions or guidelines in place that could affect your trip, and these are changing rapidly. 

AARP has information about specific travel advisories, as well as tips on how to stay safe when you travel.

What are the variants?

Public health officials have identified several new strains of the coronavirus, some of which are more contagious and may cause more severe illness. In the U.S., the biggest variant of concern is omicron. 

So far, the available vaccines still provide protection against the omicron variant, however, health officials are urging all adults to get a booster dose for added protection, since the highly transmissible strain has some vaccine-compromising abilities. New research shows the mRNA boosters from Pfizer and Moderna are highly effective at preventing hospitalizations caused by an omicron infection, even though that protection wanes some four months after the third dose. People aged 12 through 17 are also eligible for a booster. 

What is long COVID?

Many COVID-19 survivors battle lingering symptoms for weeks or months after infection, even if the initial infection was mild or asymptomatic. Sometimes called “long-haulers,” they suffer from dizziness, insomnia, confusion, a racing heart or a host of other lasting effects that keep them from getting back to their normal lives. A report published by the CDC found that as many as one-third of people with COVID-19 had lingering symptoms two months after a positive test result.

Experts encourage COVID-19 patients experiencing long COVID to seek care from a medical provider. Several U.S. hospitals and research centers have set up special clinics and rehabilitation services for survivors.

This story will be updated periodically with new developments. Check back regularly.