If someone you live with has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or seems very likely to have it (for example, if they are awaiting test results), you suddenly have an important job: Take care of the person, while reducing the risk that they’ll transmit the virus to you or to anyone else. Here are the things you should do as soon as you get the diagnosis.
Figure out how thoroughly you can isolate the infected person
If you can, give the sick person their own bedroom and bathroom. If you’ve got a guest room, or if your house has multiple bedrooms and you can shuffle around who sleeps where, that would be ideal.
But even if space is tight, consider your options. If you normally share a bed with the sick person, for example, maybe one of you can sleep on the couch. Keep personal items separate as much as possible: Don’t share utensils, toiletries, bedding, or other items. The CDC’s guidelines for people who live in close quarters also recommend that you not eat together.
Should people who are still healthy move out of the apartment if they can? Jose Torradas, an emergency medicine physician and a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, says that that’s a tricky question. Somebody who is high risk (an older person with COPD, for example) might be better off staying with friends or family for a bit, but then they also run the risk of inadvertently spreading the virus to whomever they move in with.
Designate a point person
If there are multiple people in your household, choose one person to interact with the person who is sick. (Again, if somebody is higher risk, they shouldn’t take on this role.)
If you’re the point person, you’ll be the sick person’s main caretaker, and you’ll be the one to clean up after them, do their laundry, bring them food, and so on. This minimises the risk to other people in the household.
Make sure the person still has social connections
With all the precautions, it can be easy for the infected person to spend a lot of time alone. Now is not a time for in-person visitors, but as you’re setting up your impromptu sickroom, make sure that the person has plenty of opportunities to communicate with others. Make sure they have a phone or device at hand that they can use to Facetime or chat with others, inside the house or out.
Communication is important to a person’s mental health, Dr. Torradas notes, and it’s also an opportunity for others to look out for them. If you’re Facetiming with a sick friend and notice that they’re looking unusually tired or short of breath, that would be an important warning sign that they might need help.
Gather your supplies
The fewer trips you need to make to stores, the better. Here are a few things to stock up on:
- Cleaning products, including disinfectants and bleach, to clean surfaces
- Soap and hand sanitiser to keep hands clean
- A thermometer
- Fever reducers if desired
- Masks, if you don’t already have a bunch
There’s some disagreement among medical professionals about whether a pulse oximeter is a must-have. (This is a device that painlessly clips onto your finger and uses a light to measure the oxygen in your blood.) Dr. Torradas recommends one, noting that some COVID-19 patients can have dangerously low oxygen saturation without feeling short of breath. If you use one, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about how to interpret the results.
Minimise the likelihood of transmission
While many COVID-19 cases are spread within households, Dr. Torradas points out that there are also plenty of examples of families where one person was infected but, thanks to careful precautions, did not spread it to others. So taking the extra effort to reduce the risk of transmission can be worthwhile.
The main way (not the only way) the coronavirus spreads is through respiratory droplets. In other words, when somebody breathes or shouts or coughs close to you. So you can reduce that risk:
- Keep a 1.5 metre distance.
- Open a window or spend time outside, if you can.
- Masks help. The infected person and other household members should both wear a mask when you’re in close contact.
- A plastic face shield may also keep additional droplets off your face, including your eyes. If you have one, use it.
The virus may also be able to spread via surfaces, so to prevent that:
- Wear gloves and/or wash your hands often after touching the sick person’s things, or after doing their laundry or cleaning up after them.
- Consider wearing a body covering when you interact with them, to keep droplets off your clothes. For example, this could be a plastic poncho.
- Disinfect surfaces that the sick person touches, especially things that are touched often like doorknobs and countertops.
Help them track and monitor symptoms
A mild case of the coronavirus won’t require care that’s much different than a cold or flu. But COVID-19 can become severe, even deadly, so it’s important to keep track of their health.
Keep notes on symptoms, so that you can answer questions if you seek medical care — what date did symptoms start, for example?
And definitely watch out for signs that the person needs emergency care. Those warning signs, according to the CDC, include:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
Always call ahead, if you can, before bringing a COVID-19 patient to the hospital.
Keep these precautions in place according to current guidelines for home isolation. If your healthcare provider hasn’t given you specific instructions, the CDC’s page on when to end home isolation is here. Currently, it says that a sick person can end home isolation three days after their fever goes away, and they have no symptoms, and it’s been at least ten days since they first developed symptoms. A healthy caregiver should stay at home for 14 days after the time they were first exposed to the virus.