Home Sick: How to Care for Yourself and Ill Family Members During the Pandemic

“At night, all I hear are ambulances,” Andrea Wyner told me. Wyner is an American travel photographer who lives in Milan, the primary city in Lombardy, the Italian region most effected by the coronavirus. The death toll in Italy has just surpassed that of China.

Many global health experts predict that the U.S. will experience the virus much the way Italy has. Hospitals there have been unable to keep up with the influx of ICU patients and there are reports that overwhelmed medics have had to abandon patients over 80 in some areas. Data shows that the U.S. is likely one to two weeks behind Italy.

Even for the young, the coronavirus is no joke, and most of us will be among the 80 percent who experience mild symptoms, which can include a fever and cough.  But what should you do to care for yourself and others at home? And how do you know you need medical attention?

**Note: the following information is for reference only; consult your doctor by phone on how to care for yourself or a loved one with coronavirus.**

If you wake up one morning with a dry cough and a temperature, there’s a chance you’ve been exposed. Unless you have an underlying medical condition, like diabetes or heart condition, you should treat your symptoms as you would the flu. You can expect lethargy, chills, a persistent, dry cough, and a low grade fever for up to two weeks. Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll likely pull through:

Drink lots and lots of fluids. Dehydration can lead to hospitalization.

It is ok to use ibuprofen. There have been reports that patients with coronavirus should avoid ibuprofen, found in drugs like Advil. But the World Health Organization has approved its use and NPR and the Boston Globe have pronounced the caution against ibuprofen overblown.

Use dextromethorphan to reduce coughing; use guaifenesin to break up mucus. Both drugs can be found in types of Robitussin or Mucinex.

Quarantine yourself if you are sick. You may be young and healthy but others are not. By not spreading the virus you are saving lives and helping to prevent overwhelming the medical system. And by quarantine, I mean strict no-touching-things-other-people-touch.

The virus can live on surfaces for a long time. It remains “stable” on cardboard—like a coffee cup or take-out food box—for up to 24 hours; on plastic or metal surfaces—like door knobs, cell phones, and subway polls—it can last for up to three days.

Be vigilant. The Washington Post reported recently that between February 12 and March 16, 38 percent of those hospitalized with coronavirus were younger than 55. If you experience shortness of breath or a persistent fever, call a doctor.

It is important to remember that you should not just show up at a hospital; doing so could jeopardize your health and the health of others. Monitor news of the situation at your local hospital and call before visiting.

We’re at the end of a particularly difficult flu season and we’re coming into allergy season. Be calm and discerning when you analyze your symptoms or those of a loved one; consider your history with allergies and whether you received a flu shot.

If you still have questions, the USC Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science & Innovation has created a “Coronavirus Self-Triage Guide” that will take you through a series of questions to help you understand if your experiences are consistent with the virus’s effects and whether you should seek hospital attention.

What if you have a sick family member at home? Unless you have a supply of your own medical PPE (professional protective equipment)—which is increasingly difficult to come by in this new world—keeping one sick member of your family from infecting the rest of you will not be easy.

The World Health Organization recommends that the patient be place in a well-ventilated room of the house, that their movement be limited and that their designated caregiver would wear any protective gear possible. Cleaning and disinfecting the house will help prevent spread of the virus. “Do not shake soiled laundry and avoid contaminated materials coming into contact with skin and clothes,” the WHO guide advises.

In order to prevent the overrun of U.S. hospitals there are several things we can do right now to “flatten the curve,” or spread out the rate of infection so that our medical resources can manage the severely ill. Stay at home and end your contact with others. Leave the house only for necessary items—and do so as infrequently as possible.

“Social distancing is not going to remedy this, unfortunately,” Wyner, who has family in New York and Los Angels, told me. Experts agree.  The entire Lombardy region is on lock-down, unable to leave their homes except for absolute necessities. Only grocery stores and pharmacies are open and they are deserted, Wyman told me via Skype. Italians have finally realized that risking contact means risking the death of others.

Wyner, who travels extensively for work, believes that she contracted coronavirus a few weeks ago but experienced only mild flu-like symptoms. Now she’s watching the news and marveling at crowds of spring breakers partying on Florida beaches or New Yorkers grabbing take out at their favorite local restaurant. 

She’s got a point. To Italians, taught the lesson of this virus with each pass of the ambulance, our slowly dawning awareness of the dangers of coronavirus is perplexing. But those reacting are often doing so in panic. “Why do they think they will run out of food?” Wyner asked me.

Because no one has told us otherwise. And that’s the real point of these past few weeks. The absence of clear and concise information—either from the president or our state and local leaders—has made dealing with the virus so much harder. Our die was cast by decades of federal services starvation, health care inequality, and the sickness of nationalism.

As the New York governor and the New York mayor tussle over whether to issue “shelter in place” orders for the state, it looks like we’re still on our own to figure out how to survive the plague this time.


1 see notes and transcript from convo, 3.19.2020, 10:30 am EST

2 https://abcnews.go.com/Health/coronavirus-live-updates-china-reports-domestic-cases-1st/story?id=69679965&cid=social_fb_wnt&fbclid=IwAR2yeRGSiyV_nwfPhFPlB4uKt5ByHL-RE5dRiIvRWMvNAGjkBKld59eebms

3 https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/2020/03/18/u-s-coronavirus-growth-rates-show-many-states-could-close-behind-new-york/5072663002/

4 https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/italy-elderly-coronavirus/ and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/14/italians-80-will-left-die-country-overwhelmed-coronavirus/

5 https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/world/2020/03/19/coronavirus-curve-us-may-its-most-dangerous-point/2863553001/

6 https://www.businessinsider.com/what-coronavirus-mild-symptoms-are-fever-2020-3

7 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/03/19/coronavirus-illnesses-can-serious-young-adults-cdc-report/2874271001/

8 https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/03/19/coronavirus-who-does-not-recommend-against-using-ibuprofen/ and

9 https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/18/818026613/advice-from-france-to-avoid-ibuprofen-for-covid-19-leaves-experts-baffled

10 https://www.healthline.com/health/cough/robitussin-vs-mucinex and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8dUyUF5T2g&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1JYYuhCIzQ42QEzyGoqNHtP43_phoP0_NFCqY3BLfJNFn9mMbKi7QunnY

11 https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMc2004973

12 https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/new-coronavirus-stable-hours-surfaces

13 https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/03/19/younger-adults-are-large-percentage-coronavirus-hospitalizations-united-states-according-new-cdc-data/

14 https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/18/ppe-shortages-health-workers-afraid-scouring/

15 https://www.who.int/publications-detail/home-care-for-patients-with-suspected-novel-coronavirus-(ncov)-infection-presenting-with-mild-symptoms-and-management-of-contacts

16 https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/03/test-test-test-who-says-as-us-flounders-with-covid-19-response/

17 https://www.businessinsider.com/who-social-distancing-isnt-enough-countries-must-test-2020-3

18 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-comes-spring-break-locals-close-florida-beaches-after-governor-n1163741

19 https://nypost.com/2020/03/16/takeout-business-is-just-too-small-to-help-struggling-new-york-restaurants/

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