Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Seniors play cards and billiards at the the Soddy-Daisy Senior Activity Center on March 13, 2020. Many places that cater to seniors such as restaurants, senior centers and malls are closing because of the coronavirus. Many places that cater to seniors such as restaurants, senior centers and malls are closing because of the coronavirus.

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Somewhere between the bingo games and the ukulele lessons Friday, Cathy Neely, director of the Soddy-Daisy Senior Center, got a call from her bosses.

"We just got word from the city [of Soddy-Daisy] that they're shutting it down for two weeks," she said.

Neely had already seen a decline in attendance over the past two weeks at the center, especially folks at the upper end of the membership's 50-93 age range.

"We have 28 [in attendance] today, and normally we have over 40 for bingo," she said. "Some of them will come through the storm for bingo."

But the coronavirus is another matter.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga priest with coronavirus had contact with hundreds of people in weeks following exposure)

Heeding media alerts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others in the medical community to limit their exposure, millions of Americans considered to be the most vulnerable — those who are elderly and/or have underlying health conditions — are taking extra precautions to stay safe.

"The majority of people try to downplay this, and it's true, the majority of people probably won't get coronavirus," said Hamilton County health officer Dr. Paul Hendricks. "But there is a population out there, elderly people with chronic problems, for whom we know this virus causes an increased risk."

Coronavirus hotlines

* In Chattanooga/Hamilton County: 423-209-8383

* In Tennessee: 877-867-2945



With age, he explained, immune systems naturally weaken and people become less resistant to disease.

"That doesn't mean catching disease is inevitable," Hendricks said. "There's just an increased risk of it. On top of which, as people get older, they tend to have more likelihood of other health problems, chronic medical conditions — heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, kidney and liver disease — all those kinds of things that also lower resistance."

Symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, can include fever, cough and trouble breathing. More severe symptoms include pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Avoiding exposure is top of mind for many seniors, but the forced downtime may affect their health in other ways. Social connections have been shown to be vitally important for seniors' mental and physical health. The coronavirus scare is causing them to insulate from the outside world and decrease their involvement in their communities.

For now, though, they may have little choice but to isolate themselves. The YMCA of Chattanooga, where hundreds participate in senior fitness classes, has canceled all group exercises and programming. The Chattanooga Public Library has suspended public access, programming and outreach at all branches until further notice. Most of the city's tourist attractions are closed.

Shopping centers are still welcoming mall walkers, though, and restaurants are still serving their early bird clientele. Gary Meadows, owner of Wally's on McCallie Avenue, said he believes the local food-service industry may still be on the cusp of downturns associated with the coronavirus scare — likely with all ages, but especially with older customers.

The first confirmed case in Hamilton County, announced Friday, "actually brings in a whole different level of fear," he said. "I'm not sure how [business] will be moving forward."

With the CDC's advice to avoid large gatherings, many seniors are opting to stock up and stay home.

"We started early on," said Rita Pack, 77, of Hixson, of her and her husband, Don, 81. "We always knew it was going to get worse, of course. We tried to stock up on food as fast as we could. We've been staying home and distancing ourselves."

Pack said she has fibromyalgia and diabetes, while her husband is "in pretty good shape except for high blood pressure, which is controlled, and a little arthritis."

They have secured extra medications, and a neighbor took care of their groceries via an online order and curbside pickup.

"We did all the things they've told us to do," Pack said. "We're washing our hands, wiping doorknobs, trying to make sure we didn't bring in anything from somebody else."

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.

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Seniors staying home