Covid cases are surging across the country, with many hospitals approaching maximum ICU capacity. Even as new vaccines are rolled out, public health professionals are stressing the need for continuing vigilance against this increasingly-infectious virus.
If you have a household member who is Covid-positive but not yet needing hospitalization, you’ll want to keep this patient comfortable and keep everyone else at home safe.
Two University of California San Francisco healthcare professionals, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine, and Diana Anderson, a clinical fellow in geriatrics, medical doctor and architect (dochitect, as she describes herself), offer suggestions on how to do both.
Anderson recommends designating a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible, and ensuring that other household members stay out of both spaces. “Consider signage on the door if small children or elderly, cognitively-impaired family members live in the same household so they do not mistakenly go into this space.”
Chin-Hong agrees, pointing out that the same type of public health signs posted widely in public spaces can help in private ones too – especially if they’re artful and uplifting. (Perhaps this is an opportunity for young family members to be creatively engaged, which can help them remember the messages more easily too.)
He also suggests keeping the room simple. “Sometimes I think of what not to include as well; you want to keep the room as bare as possible. More items equal more surfaces for potential contamination. Think Zen minimalist rather than English country style.”
This less-is-more approach should extend to the bathroom being used by the patient, he notes. The fewer potentially-infected surfaces to clean, the better, especially if the space has to be shared by other household members.
Anderson further suggests removing any belongings from the patient’s room that someone else in the home might need, so they don’t have to risk their health to enter the space and retrieve them.
If you’re setting up an isolation suite, here are suggestions for items to have within or close by, and home improvements you can make:
While you’re isolating someone for safety, you don’t want to isolate the patient emotionally or socially, both doctors agree. You want to “maintain contact with family and friends,” Anderson advises, and include communication devices and Internet access, “even a simple radio can allow one to stay connected to daily news, listen to music, etc.”
“The medical term ‘isolation’ really reflects the lived experience of how it feels for a patient with Covid,” Chin-Hong shares. “It is vital to have an iPad, a smartphone or a computer to visually connect the patient to the outside world as human touch becomes limited,” he adds.
“Comfort becomes critically important when infected patients feel cut off from the rest of the world,” he observes. “There is physical comfort, but also importantly psychological comfort.”
There are different ways of achieving that, depending on the patient. “One Covid-infected medical student I know was recently taken care of by his sister in her apartment’s spare room,” the infectious disease specialist recalls. “She filled it with his favorite home-cooked meals and a small microwave that he could use to warm them up. Those home flavors and comfort foods provided solace when he felt the most alone.”
If the Covid-infected family member is able to maintain any part of a normal regimen, it’s helpful to do so in terms of maintaining circadian rhythms, Anderson advises. She suggests keeping the room dark at night, (which can be helped with blackout window coverings), providing natural light during the day, and encouraging the patient to stay out of bed during waking hours if possible to ensure better sleep.
Anderson also suggests providing access to nature. “Views to the outdoors can allow connection to the outside world while one is under quarantine, and views of nature have been shown in studies to have healing effects on people who are hospitalized.”
There are homes where complete separation isn’t possible. In those settings, “Any shared spaces need to be well-ventilated,” Anderson cautions. Air filters, air purifiers and open windows can help in this regard.
“We’ve learned over the past few months how important ventilation is in the home setting where respiratory droplets can remain suspended as aerosols for longer times in poorly-ventilated areas,” Chin-Hong stresses.
Even if there isn’t a spare room available for a patient, “There are still ways to mitigate risk by having the family member stay as far away as possible from others, using dedicated utensils and plates, and universal mask-wearing (potentially upgraded to N95s with or without face shields if indoor ventilation is poor),” he adds.
The infectious disease specialist offers one final caution: “If uninfected family members are immunocompromised, elderly or have co-morbid medical conditions, they should take extra precautions by limiting contact or staying elsewhere temporarily if that is possible.”