How to stay healthy while taking care of a loved one with COVID-19

The sick person will probably be contagious for about two weeks after the onset of illness.
Getty Images

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Most Americans who test positive for the new coronavirus will ride out the disease at home.

About 80% of COVID-19 patients experience a mild illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so they’ll rely on family members — not doctors — to get better.

But with a loved one shedding the contagious virus at home, is it inevitable that other members of the household will get sick, too, or is it possible to stay healthy?

Dr. Joseph Vinetz, an infectious disease doctor at Yale Medicine in Connecticut, put the answer at “somewhere in between.”

“You have to assume that if you’re at home with somebody with COVID-19, that you’re infected,” Vinetz told TODAY.

“Whether that’s true, we don’t know, but entirely probable.”

We apologize, this video has expired.

To minimize the risk of transmission, the CDC and the World Health Organization have guidelines for people caring for a loved one with COVID-19. Here’s the basic advice:

Separate the sick person from other household members

Ideally, the patient should have his or her own bedroom and bathroom and stay isolated in that corner of the house the whole day, eating meals, working and relaxing only in that space.

One household member who is in good health and has no underlying medical problems should be assigned to be the caregiver. He or she should stay out of the sick room unless absolutely necessary to enter.

The patient will probably be contagious for about two weeks after the onset of illness, Vinetz said.

He realized there are people who live in more cramped quarters and have to share one bathroom. In those cases, frequent hand washing with soap and water, and decontaminating surfaces is particularly important. He advised using any routine household disinfectant to sanitize the sink, toilet, faucet handles and other commonly touched surfaces after the sick person used the bathroom.

“But I wouldn’t wash the walls or anything like that. There’s no reason to be obsessive about it,” Vinetz noted.

If you can't stay in a different room from the sick person, sleep in a separate bed and keep at least 3 feet from the patient, WHO advised.

Leave the meals at the door

Place the sick person’s food in front of the door then go away, which minimizes person-to-person contact. Have the patient return the empty plate to the same place.

“The main thing is to reduce the cough exchange between people,” Vinetz said. “Viruses don’t go through doors. The virus goes out in coughed up or sneezed out droplets to people.”

How to handle laundry and dishes:

Immediately remove and wash clothes or bedding that have blood, stool or body fluids on them, the CDC advised. Wear disposable gloves while handling those items and keep them away from your body. Wash your hands immediately after removing the gloves.

The new coronavirus is very sensitive to all soaps and detergents so it’s perfectly fine for the patient’s clothes be washed in the same load as items from other members of the household and it’s not necessary to crank up the water temperature, Vinetz said.

It’s the same with the patient’s plates and utensils — they can be placed with other people’s items in the dishwasher.

But family members should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, utensils, towels, bedding or other items with the sick person.

Patients should wear a surgical mask when they leave their room

A surgical mask can reduce the amount of respiratory droplets coming out when a sick person coughs or sneezes. The patient doesn’t need to wear it all day long, just when coming out of his or her room or if a caregiver must enter the room.

Healthy people in the household don’t need to wear a mask, Vinetz said.

“I don’t see much of a use for people wearing surgical masks if they’re not infected,” he noted. “We just don’t have the resources for everybody to be in a hazmat suit.”

Open the window

Make sure shared spaces in the home have good air flow, the CDC advised.

That’s because aerosols of the virus can stay in the air for a few minutes or longer, so opening a window washes the room out with fresh air, Vinetz said.

“The fresh air circulating is really important,” he added. “That’s actually a very good way to try to reduce the infectivity of the air inside.”

How to tell when a sick person needs to go to the hospital:

People who experience chest pains or shortness of breath, or are so exhausted they can’t get out of bed need to go to the hospital.

“Those are the kinds of symptoms that make the illness worse than just a routine flu-like illness,” Vinetz said.

Hang in there:

“Almost everybody will do just fine as we make our way through this. A few people are going to have problems,” Vinetz said.

“We need to reduce the risk of that, but we all have to take care of ourselves as well as others.”