Tips for helping a family member or roommate cope with coronavirus effects, while protecting yourself and others.
This article was updated on December 23, 2021.
Editor's note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing. For the latest numbers and updates, keep checking the CDC's website. For the most up-to-date information from Michigan Medicine, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage.
It's happened, or at least you think it has. The tiny coronavirus that's causing big problems around the world has made it into your home.
Someone you live with is sick and you think it's COVID-19.
They need your help, but you don't want to get sick too, or pass the virus to others.
What can you do?
Even if you don't yet know for sure, assume they have COVID until you can get them tested.-
With current high levels of COVID cases in the U.S., if they're running a fever, have a sore throat, hacking away with a 'dry' cough, have a runny nose, or are feeling super tired or have aches for no apparent reason, it's quite possible they do have COVID. Some other symptoms include nausea diarrhea and suddenly losing their sense of smell or taste.
Fully vaccinated people, and even people who have had a booster dose of vaccine, can still catch coronavirus and develop symptoms, though the vaccine offers strong protection against severe cases.
It's also possible to test positive for COVID without having symptoms; such people still need to follow precautions because they can spread the virus to others who might be more vulnerable than them.
First: Call the person's regular doctor's office, if they have one, to report the symptoms. If they have any serious underlying health conditions, are pregnant or are taking medications that weaken their immune system, the doctor's office may offer specific advice.
Now, make a plan to get them tested.
If you have a rapid antigen test already on hand, or you can get one from a store or health department, use it first – they are most accurate for mildly symptomatic people. Be sure to follow the directions closely, as most tests are not one and done – the packages contain two cards, designed for one person to test twice within a few days.
If the rapid test is positive, or if you can't easily get a rapid test, it's time to help them get to a PCR testing location. Pharmacies, health departments and hospitals or health systems all offer testing; most ask you to make an appointment but you may also find drive-up options. No matter what, make sure they, and you, wear a mask over both mouth and nose when you're taking them. Keep the window of the car open a bit to let air circulate.
While you're waiting for their PCR test results, which could take one to three days, you're better off taking the same precautions at home that you would take if you knew for sure that they had the virus. You should also alert people who were near them in recent days, because they are now at risk of getting sick and spreading the virus.
If the first rapid test was negative, it's best to take precautions until it's time to take the second test in the kit. Even if they test negative again, and they just have a plain old cold or the flu, it's best to avoid spreading it to the rest of the household.
Follow these COVID-19 ground rules without fail:
Put the person who has COVID, or is waiting for test results, in isolation within the home. Keep reading for more about that.
You, and everyone the sick person lives with or was recently with, are now considered a close contact of a person with COVID. Read what that means depending on each person's vaccination status or past COVID history and whether they develop symptoms or not.
Don't go in the same room as the sick person unless they, and you, have covered both mouth and nose with a mask. The masks should fit snugly and be several layers if they are cloth; surgical masks or KN95 masks offer more protection.
Except when you need to check on them or bring them something, stay out of the same room as them, and give them a dedicated space with a door that closes.
Keep air circulating into their space, by cracking open a window. If possible, set up a fan pointing out the window, or use an air filtering device that you buy or make.
Make sure the sick person coughs into their mask or cloth, or their elbow or a tissue, to keep virus particles out of the air. Dispose of tissues after one use.
Clean your hands often and thoroughly with soap or alcohol rub.
Clean surfaces with soap or disinfectants.
Don't touch your face unless you've just cleaned your hands.
"When you're living with someone who you think or know has COVID-19, you should support them physically and emotionally, while at the same time avoiding getting close, touching them or touching things they have touched that haven't been cleaned yet," says Tammy Chang, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., assistant professor of Family Medicine at Michigan Medicine. "And be sure to check on them often, either by phone or without entering their room all the way, because they can take a turn for the worse very quickly."
If you know someone who lives alone and has symptoms, ask if you can help with some of these same things without entering their home more than needed. Check on them frequently by phone or text, and offer to drop off food, medicines or things to help make them comfortable.
Know the COVID-19 danger signs, and what to do if they happen:
For most unvaccinated people, a coronavirus infection will lay them low for a couple of weeks. Vaccinated people will likely have a milder course of illness.
Talk to their regular doctor about what to expect, but if you or someone you live with or know has these symptoms, it's time to seek emergency care:
Chest pain or pressure that doesn't go away
Confusion or can't be woken up
Blue color in their lips or face
If they, or you, have a higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19, be especially watchful for these symptoms.
Caring for a COVID-19 patient at home
Think like a combination of nurse and hotel room service.
For more than 100 years, nurses and other health care workers have followed basic steps to take care of people with contagious diseases, while protecting themselves from infections.
If someone you live with has COVID-19 symptoms but isn't sick enough to need a hospital, or even if they have tested positive on a PCR test and have no symptoms, now it's your turn to provide "supportive care" while protecting your health.
Here are 14 ways how:
- Pick a 'sick room' for them to isolate in: The sick person should stay in a bedroom with a door if at all possible, and not come out except to go to the bathroom. No one else should spend time in that room more than absolutely necessary. Children and pets should stay out. Keep a window open in the sick room if possible, to keep air circulating. Provide tissues.
If you don't have more than one bedroom, give them the bedroom, and you can sleep on the couch or other temporary spot like an inflatable mattress, so you can still use the living room, kitchen and other spaces while they stay in their room.
- Pick a 'sick bathroom': If you have two bathrooms, make one of them the sick person's bathroom, and don't let anyone else use it. If you don't have two, open windows, run the ventilation fan if you have one, and clean every surface they touch after they go to the bathroom, so it's clean when you or other people you live with need to use it. (see cleaning tips below.) And don't share water cups.
- Help them track their symptoms: Have them take their temperature several times a day, without getting close to them. Write down the readings, and note when new symptoms occur.
- Help them hydrate: Make sure they're drinking a lot of water and other non-alcoholic clear liquids.
- Ease their symptoms: Help them understand how often they can take medicine to reduce their fever, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Make sure the sick person understands how much to take – read the label on the bottle and follow it. If they have a bad cough, help them understand how much cough medicine to take and when.
Don't let them take more than the recommended dose of any medicine, or use alcohol when taking a medicine that advises against it. Keep track of what the sick person has taken and when.
Make sure they keep taking any other medicines they would usually take, unless their doctor has told them to stop.
- Keep them comfortable and entertained, while keeping your distance: Make sure they have blankets and pillows, books, magazines, and a computer or TV to pass the time, and a charger for their phone near their bed, so you don't have to go in and out of the room. Keep the house or apartment quiet so they can sleep.
- Help them with food, but keep your distance: Find a tray or cookie sheet that you can use to bring them food or drinks when they need it.
If they can get out of bed: Put the food and drinks on the tray, and place it outside their closed door. Walk away. They can open the door, get the tray, eat in their room, and then put the tray back on the floor outside the door and close it.
If they can't easily get out of bed: Wear a mask over your mouth and nose when you go in their room, and have them cover theirs too. Bring their food and drink to their bedside table, and go back after a while to pick it up again, wearing a mask again. Wash their dishes thoroughly with hot water and soap. Wash your hands thoroughly after you touch anything they ate or drank from.
- Keep their laundry separate: Bring changes of clothes and pajamas to them if they're not already in the sick room. Get your clothes out of the sick room if they're usually stored there.
Make sure they have a basket, hamper or bag in the sick room to put clothes, towels, washcloths and bedding in. Have them put it outside their door when it's full, or wear a mask over your mouth and nose when you go in to get it. Wash their clothes, towels and bedding separately from anyone else's.
- Clean and ventilate the home: The virus can linger in the air, and on surfaces. Clean everything the sick person might have touched or worn when they were in the early stages of getting sick, or when they were contagious before developing symptoms.
Even if they are in their own room with the door closed most of the time, keep windows open slightly in other parts of the home to create ventilation. Run the fan on your heating/cooling system, and use a freestanding fan pointed at an open window to move air out.
- Say no to visitors: You shouldn't be having guests over when someone in the house has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. You also shouldn't have people working inside your home. If you have to see someone in person, do it outside your home, preferably outdoors, and stay at least six feet away from them. If they're bringing you something, ask them to put it down and step away so you can pick it up.
- Use technology to connect: It may seem silly to do a video chat, text message or voice call with someone in the next room, but it can give the sick person human contact with you, your children or pets, and others in the home, without spreading the virus. Make sure they can connect virtually with others, too – including relatives, friends, coworkers and faith organizations. This can ease the awfulness of being sick and stuck in one room.
- Stay home yourself: Now that you and others in your home have had contact with someone who has or might have COVID-19, you could carry the virus with you to work, to gatherings, or to the store, even if you don't have symptoms.
Everyone the sick person lives with, or spent time with in the days before they developed symptoms or tested positive, is considered a "close contact" of a person with COVID-19. This is true even for people who are fully vaccinated and have had a booster dose of vaccine, and for people who had COVID themselves in the past few months. Close contacts should follow guidance about quarantining, testing and masking from the CDC. That guidance varies depending on vaccination status.
If you are caring for or living with a person with suspected or known COVID, contact your own doctor if you have special risk factors that could put you at risk of severe COVID (such as a medical condition, pregnancy or advanced age).
Plan to order delivery from restaurants and grocery stores, or ask friends or family if they are able to shop for you, and leave the items outside your front door. If those options aren't available, wear a mask over your mouth and nose and make as few trips as possible.
If you have a yard, garden, patio, balcony or porch, spend time there to get outdoors, but stay six feet away from anyone who doesn't live with you.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help or moral support: It's OK to let friends, neighbors and family know that someone you live with is sick, and to seek and accept their help while not letting them near the sick person.
You don't have to tell your whole social media network, but at least tell a few people you can rely on. And definitely tell anyone who was in close contact (15 minutes or more in the same room) with the sick person in the three days before their symptoms began, so that those people can follow CDC advice too.
Friends, relatives and neighbors can bring you supplies from the 'outside world' and leave them on your doorstep, or ship them to you.
Don't forget that you need emotional support and connection to help you get through your time as a COVID-19 caregiver. As the nation works to fight the spread of the virus, and care for the sick, we're all affected in some way. But connecting with one another in safe ways can help us cope.
- After they're better: Someone who has had COVID-19, whether they got tested or not, should stay home and away from others until they meet the following criteria: CDC guidelines state that if you think or know someone has had COVID-19, they can be with others only after they've been fever-free, without medication, for 24 hours AND their respiratory symptoms have improved (this includes coughing or shortness of breath) AND it has been 10 days since their symptoms first appeared.
The CDC also states that people who have been around someone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should stay home for 10 to 14 days after that exposure unless they are fully vaccinated or had COVID themselves in the last 90 days. People who remain without symptoms and test negative on a test of their own may be able to "test out" of quarantine sooner.
If anyone else in the household develops COVID-like symptoms or tests positive while the first person is still sick or recovering, the 'quarantine clock' starts again for everyone in the home who has not gotten sick or tested positive.
After the quarantine and isolation periods end for everyone in the home, you, and they, should do a thorough cleaning of the 'sick room', including wiping down all hard surfaces, washing bedding including blankets, and vacuuming. Air out the entire home well.
And anyone in the home who is eligible for vaccination or a booster dose of vaccine may go get vaccinated as soon as their quarantine or isolation period has ended – even the sick person as long as their symptoms are gone. The exception: If anyone's doctor advised them to get monoclonal antibody therapy, and they received it because they had COVID or have extra risk factors, they should not go for any further vaccination until 90 days after this treatment.
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