Elderly, those with health conditions most at risk for COVID-19

Coronavirus also poses hazard to heart disease, diabetes patients

Heritage Woods, a nursing home in Ottawa, is stopping all visitors at its entrance.

Anyone entering is being screened for respiratory symptoms, such as fever, sore throat or coughs; asked whether they've traveled outside of the country in the last two or three weeks; and questioned if they've been in contact with COVID-19.

Only visitors essential to a patient's needs are allowed in.

"We're taking every precaution," said Peggy Morgan, administrator at Heritage Woods of Ottawa.

The measures taken at Heritage Woods are similar to those being put in place across other Illinois nursing homes, after coronavirus turned up among residents or workers in at least 11 elder-care facilities in the Seattle area, leading to more than a dozen deaths in one nursing home.

The elderly are among those who are at a higher risk of getting "very sick" from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"The No. 1 thing we're trying to do is limit possible exposure," Morgan said, noting the nursing home has amped up cleaning procedures, staff training and awareness of such things as washing hands for its residents.

The CDC also warns those with cancer or serious chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are at greater risk.

According to a World Health Organization report, fatality rates are higher in patients with underlying conditions. Those with heart diseases had a rate of 13.2%; diabetes 9.2%; hypertension 8.4%; respiratory disease 8% and cancer 7.6% — compared to 1% for healthy adults.

Health officials warn smokers are more susceptible to coronavirus. Smoking affects the immune system in the airways, lung tissue and throughout the body. This reduces natural protection against infections.

Individuals with autoimmune conditions, as opposed to immunodeficiency conditions, are due to an overactive immune condition. The treatments for autoimmune conditions may involve the use of immunosuppressants, such as prednisone, and increase the risks. Those individuals should contact their doctors about preventative measures.

There is no evidence children are more susceptible, according to the CDC. In fact, the agency said most confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported from China have occurred in adults.

Still, school districts are following daily updates from the Illinois Department of Public Health and county agencies. The biggest message going out to parents is if children or staff are sick, stay home.

"The best thing students and staff can do is what they should always do: wash their hands with soap and warm water, cover coughs and sneezes, use tissues, and stay home if they are sick," said Craig Ortiz, superintendent of Morris High School District.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported there are not enough scientific reports regarding the suscpetibility of pregnant women to the virus. Pregnant women experience immunologic and physiologic changes that might make them more susceptible to viral respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

While the virus can make anyone sick, "if you are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of your age or because you have a serious long-term health problem, it is extra important for you to take actions to reduce your risk of getting sick with the disease," said Melissa Edwards, health promotion and emergency preparedness coordinator at the DeKalb County Health Department.

It is especially important for higher risk individuals to:

• Stock up on supplies, including prescription medication. Have at least 30 days of medicine on-hand.

• Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others.

• When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often.

• Avoid crowds as much as possible.

• Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.

• Stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk.