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How to self-isolate if you think you have coronavirus

Vox.com logo Vox.com 11/03/2020 Alex Ward

The growing awareness of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the United States means that everyone is going to have to challenge its rise via different measures.

If you have a confirmed case of the Covid-19 coronavirus disease but don’t need immediate medical attention, health professionals suggest self-isolation. That means to separating yourself from other people so that you can get better without infecting anyone else. (Experts also recommend self-isolation or quarantine for those who have contacted a health professional and show symptoms of the disease — including fever, dry cough, and fatigue — but haven’t yet been tested yet, and for those who have been in close contact with people known to have the virus.)

It’s a highly effective method for slowing the spread of the virus, and one of the ways the 2003 SARS outbreak was contained. That’s why medical professionals insist that anyone showing signs of symptoms stay away from others as best they can while checking in with their health care providers for further advice on how long to stay isolated, which in some cases can be as long as 14 days.

Self-isolation might slow the rate of infections, allowing hospitals to treat those require attention without getting overburdened.

But it’s a surprisingly involved process requiring a lot of vigilance and dedication, and if possible help from a spouse, partner, friend, or family member. (This is different than self-quarantine, which is when someone who doesn’t have symptoms yet, but came in contact with some who does, keeps away from people as while to see if they’re sick.)

Security staff eat at a self-made isolation table in Zhoushan City, China, on February 25, 2020. © Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images Security staff eat at a self-made isolation table in Zhoushan City, China, on February 25, 2020.

Luckily, medical experts and officials from across the globe have listed best practices for when you’re at home keeping away from others because of Covid-19, which might require masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, and lots of soap.

Here, then, is a quick guide to those practices.

How someone with coronavirus can best self-isolate

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) list five main things one should do during self-isolation. Some are extremely simple; the tricky part is fully adhering to them over a potentially two-week period.

1. Stay home

Seriously, stay home. That should seem obvious from the term “self-isolation,” but it remains the top best practice. “Don’t go out if ill,” Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, wrote for Think Global Health on Tuesday.

Someone with coronavirus or coronavirus symptoms shouldn’t leave the house unless it’s for medical care. That means avoiding any public areas like work, buses, schools, taxis, or grocery stores. If there’s someone who can help purchase and deliver food or supplies as necessary — whether a friend or a service like Instacart — have them get what’s needed.

Gallery: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world (Photos)

In the meantime, if you can’t work, use the time to catch up books, or television.

“Let’s encourage our digital streaming services, including Netflix, Disney, Hulu, Apple, Amazon and delivery services to offer free services to people on home quarantine and in places with community transmission in order to make staying at home more pleasant — and therefore increase the chance people will comply,” Frieden also wrote.

2. Separate from other people and pets

If you live with someone, say a spouse or a partner, or have animals, it will be a challenge to keep away from them — but it’s precisely what needs to happen.

If possible, stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom from everyone else. The advice is to only come out of the room to grab food when no one else is in the kitchen, and then disinfect all the areas. That could include countertops, drawer and refrigerator handles, etc.

You should take food back to the isolated area, preferably the bedroom. And don’t share plates, cups, or utensils. After use, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water manually or in a dishwasher.

Avoid interaction with your pet if you are ill Avoid interaction with your pet if you are ill

As for the pets, it’s out an abundance of caution that the CDC recommends you stay away from animal friends. “Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus,” the CDC explains on its website. If you can’t keep away from your pets, wash hands after every interaction.

Of course, you can still tell your furry friends you love them through the closed door.

3. Keep the fluids from coughs and sneezes out of the air or off surfaces

Everyone’s been told to sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow to stop the spread of the virus through droplets, and the same holds during self-isolation.

If you can’t wear a mask to protect others from your particles, either because there’s a shortage or because it causes trouble breathing, “then people who live with you should not stay in the same room with you, or they should wear a facemask if they enter your room,” says the CDC.

The not staying-in-the-same-room part is key. A spouse, partner, or friend shouldn’t use the same bedding as the sick person. It’s recommended that the healthier person sleep elsewhere, either in another room if available or on a couch.

FAQs: Facts about COVID-19 as per World Health Organization (Photos)


4. Wash hands

It’s the best thing a person can do to avoid infection: If there’s a virus on your hand and you touch your nose, mouth, or eyes, you could be infected. But especially if someone is sick, or another person is around trying to care for the sick person, washing for at least 20 seconds and often with soap and water is the best possible thing to do.

If you doesn’t have soap and water, medical professionals recommend using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. (No, Tito’s vodka doesn’t count.) There must be at least 60 percent alcohol for that process to work, and all surfaces of the hands must be rubbed until they’re dry.

5. Clean and wash “high-touch” items in the house

Cleaning the kitchen, as mentioned above, is paramount, but that’s not all that needs disinfecting. It is unclear how much of a factor spread of the virus from surfaces is, but thorough cleaning is still recommended.

Pretty much anything that gets touched in the house should be cleaned thoroughly. That means “counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables, every day,” as the CDC writes.

Related: The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus (The Guardian)

Bathrooms are often overlooked but are important as they may have blood, stool, or other bodily fluids in them that could spread the virus. That’s why it’s best that the sick person use their own bathroom while others in the house use another one, if available.

If there’s only one bathroom, the NHS recommends a rotation schedule whereby “the isolated person us[es] the facilities last, before thoroughly cleaning the bathroom themselves.” Everyone should use separate towels if they don’t already.

This best practice extends to laundry, too. One should “immediately” remove any clothes or bedding that has blood, stool, or bodily fluids on them, preferably using disposable gloves. The person who removed the items, preferably a partner or friend — not the sick person — should wash their hands afterwards.

Every surface should be disinfected Every surface should be disinfected

And per the CDC, “place all used disposable gloves, facemasks, and other contaminated items in a lined container before disposing of them with other household waste.”

When to end self-isolation

The reason for the focus on self-isolation is that it’s very effective but also very tricky. Understanding the nuances can help keep others safe and possibly one’s own recovery.

Still, a sick person may feel antsy to end self-isolation. As the NHS puts it, those isolated tend to find the process “boring or frustrating” with one’s mood getting low, feeling worried, or have trouble sleeping.

But self-isolation shouldn’t end until “the risk of secondary transmission to others is thought to be low,” says the CDC. To know when the time is right, the decision should be made “in consultation with healthcare providers and state and local health departments.”

In other words, seek professional advice before ending the isolation. Hopefully that day comes sooner rather than later after following the recommended best practices.

Follow the government's latest travel advice for people travelling back to the UK from affected areas, including whether to self-isolate. Don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and call NHS 111. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS DIrect on 0845 46 47. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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