Health and Healthcare Systems

How to look after someone with coronavirus

A family self isolates at home amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shoreline, Washington, U.S., March 23, 2020.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder - Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly

Anyone who lives with someone who is symptomatic should remain indoors and not go out for 14 days. Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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COVID-19

  • Strict hygiene is crucial in looking after someone with coronavirus.
  • Keep them apart from other members of the household.
  • Inform your health service and call for emergency help if symptoms worsen.

It’s the moment many people fear – someone in your household begins to show symptoms of coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that anyone with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention and follow the directions of their local health authority.

The first step to take, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is to isolate the person as much as possible within the home. Ideally they should have their own bedroom. If not, maintaining the maximum distance from other people is essential.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says: “Let’s be practical. OK, you can have your own bedroom... and take all the precautions you need.

“But if it’s in a developing country, like for instance where I grew up, if it’s one room where there is a big family, like five or seven people in one room, how do you implement that? That’s why we say we don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.”

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WHO advice

The WHO says someone with COVID-19 symptoms should stay in a well-ventilated single room with open windows and an open door. They should avoid using shared spaces wherever possible, and bathrooms and kitchens should be well ventilated.

Other members of the household should stay in a different room or, if that is not possible, maintain a distance of at least 1 metre from the ill person and sleep in a separate bed.

One member of the household, who is in good health with no underlying chronic medical conditions, should take on the role of caregiver – no one else should visit the patient until they are symptom-free.

Caregivers should wash their hands after every contact with the patient, as well as before and after preparing food, before eating, after using the toilet, and whenever hands look dirty.

After washing hands with soap and water it is preferable to use disposable paper towels to dry them. If these are not available, use clean cloth towels and replace them frequently. The WHO says both the ill person and the caregiver should wear medical masks.

The sick person should use separate cups, dishes, utensils, towels and bed linen to the rest of the household. And all these items should be washed separately using soap and water.

Breastfeeding mothers can continue to feed their babies but should wear a mask when near the baby, says the WHO.

Any surfaces and objects that have been touched by the sick person should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily. It’s thought coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has produced a detailed guide to disinfection in the home.

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It’s important that the sick person rests in bed, eats nutritious food and maintains a steady intake of fluids.

Monitoring a patient’s symptoms is vital. For some people, the virus will have only mild effects. But in serious cases it can cause pneumonia. If someone has difficulty breathing, you should immediately contact your medical services for help.

How to self-isolate as a household

Advice varies between countries as to when you should notify health providers that a person is showing coronavirus symptoms. The WHO says anyone with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek attention and follow the directions of their local health authority.

COVID-19 is spread by droplets released by infected people when they sneeze or cough. This is why self-isolation within the home is so important. Once one person in the home is infected it's important for the rest of the household to stay indoors and avoid contact with anyone else.

The UK health authorities say that anyone who has coronavirus symptoms (a high temperature or a new, continuous cough) should not leave their home for seven days, apart from to exercise, when they should remain at least two metres away from other people.

In the Philippines, health minister Maria Rosario Vergeire has warned that people with COVID-19 may seek to hide their symptoms for fear of social stigma. She urged people not to discriminate against people with the disease.

The Indian health ministry is offering citizens a smartphone app which provides alerts and advice on COVID-19 delivered in 11 different languages to help people stay safe during the pandemic.

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Communities pulling together

In many countries, online delivery services are prioritizing supplies of food for people who are self-isolating. Community groups have also been formed to deliver food and medicines to those who cannot go out because of coronavirus.

The only way to be sure that a person has COVID-19 is to test them. In South Korea, mass testing has helped the authorities contain the spread of the virus and reduce the death toll by isolating those carrying the infection without the need for a total lockdown.

In other nations, like the UK, testing has so far only been undertaken when people are admitted to hospital. Home testing kits are being ordered for use in some countries but are not yet widely available.

The WHO Director-General says each country needs its own solution for isolating people with COVID-19. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says, noting the WHO is expecting communities to find the best way of protecting themselves, based on WHO guidelines.

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