By now, you’ve likely heard the advice: If you suspect that you’re sick with COVID-19, or live with someone who is showing symptoms of the disease caused by the coronavirus, be prepared to ride it out at home.
That’s because the vast majority of cases are mild or moderate, and while these cases can feel as rough as a very bad flu and even include some cases of pneumonia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most of these patients will be able to recover without medical assistance. (If you’re having trouble breathing or other emergency warning signs, seek medical help immediately.)
But this general advice means anyone living in the same household with the sick person could get infected — a real concern, since research so far suggests household transmission is one of the main ways the coronavirus spreads. So how do you minimize your risk when moving out isn’t an option? Here’s what infectious disease and public health experts have to say:
Physically isolate the person who is sick
If you live in a place with more than one room, identify a room or area – like a bedroom – where the sick person can be isolated from the rest of the household, including pets. (The CDC says that while there’s no evidence that pets can transmit the virus to humans, there have been reports of pets becoming infected after close contact with people who have COVID-19.)
Ideally, the “sick room” will have a door that can be kept shut when the sick person is inside — which should really be most of the time.
“It would make sense for the person to just to be in their [contained] area in which we presume that things have virus exposure,” says Dr. Rachel Bender Ignacio, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. That way, she says, everyone else can move about the home more freely. A door would also make it easier to keep kids out of the isolation room.
Things get trickier if you all live in tighter quarters, like a one-bedroom or studio apartment, or have shared bedrooms. Everyone should still try to sleep in separate quarters from the sick person if at all possible — “whether it’s one person on a couch, another person on a bed,” Bender Ignacio says.
That said, when multiple people share a small living space like that, “it may be very near impossible to avoid exposure,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “If you are somebody that has other medical conditions or you’re an advanced age and you’re at risk for having a more severe course [of COVID-19], I do think you should take that into consideration and, if it’s feasible, move out.”
Limit your physical interactions — but not your emotional ones
Even as you try to limit your face-to-face interactions with the sick person, remember, we all need human contact. Try visiting via text or video options like Facetime instead. Old-fashioned phone calls work too.
Whenever you are in the same room together, the CDC recommends that the sick person wear a cloth face covering, even in their own home. In practice, however, Adalja notes that “it can be uncomfortable for someone who’s sick to wear a mask all the time in their own house” — hence, another reason to limit those interactions.
Just make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after every visit with the ill person.
Consider yourself quarantined, too
Bender Ignacio says if one person in the household is sick, everyone else in the household should consider themselves as possibly having asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infection, even if they feel fine.
That means you should quarantine yourselves at home, too, she says, and ask a friend or neighbor to help with essential errands like grocery shopping — so you don’t run the risk of exposing other people in the store.