One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ScienceNovember 26, 2021

Siouxsie Wiles: How to care for yourself and others with Covid-19 at home

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Many Covid patients will recover at home this summer. Here’s what to do if you test positive.

Moving away from the elimination strategy means we now have more people with Covid-19 than can be cared for within our managed isolation and quarantine system. Like many countries around the world that means people with the virus need to be isolated and cared for at home. This has been happening for a little while during our current delta outbreak.

Yesterday the government announced that people who test positive for Covid-19, along with their household contact will now most likely be isolating at home for ten days. It also announced a plan to better support people who have to isolate at home and a $300 million boost to Pharmac to buy new medicines to treat Covid-19.

Going forward, the government’s “Care in the Community” approach will see people who test positive for Covid-19 contacted by a healthcare provider within 24 hours. This will be to discuss what they, and their household contacts, will need to isolate at home. Presumably this will cover whether they have any medical needs and what their housing situation is. People will also be allocated someone who will be responsible for looking out for their health and wellbeing needs and checking in with them regularly. I hope this will be a local healthcare provider, like a GP, who’ll be most likely to know what those needs really are. The government says people will also be provided with a support pack within 48 hours though there weren’t many details of what this would include.

Time to put an isolation plan together

Caring for yourself or someone else with Covid at home involves two important things: making sure all of your/their needs are met and preventing anyone else from getting infected. Back in March last year I shared my pandemic preparedness plan with you all. I think what we all need now is an isolation plan and so below are some of my things to think about. The Unite Against Covid-19 website also has a really good Readiness Checklist to help you plan and prepare. There is even a sign for you to print out that you can put on your door to warn others that you are isolating.

The other people who’ve put together a list are those who have had Covid-19/long Covid. This list is crowdsourced so contains a few things that will only provide some relief via the power of the placebo effect.

I know this is a bit macabre, but we know Covid-19 is a serious illness, especially for the unvaccinated. Is your will up to date? Does your family know your wishes for end-of-life care? Do you know theirs?

Pick an “isolation pal”

You’re going to need an “isolation pal”, especially if you live by yourself. This will be the person you keep in daily contact with. Make sure they have your emergency contacts. Make a plan for how you will deliver food and medicines to each other if needed. If either of you gets sick, check in twice a day. Make sure you have plans for the care of children, pets, and anyone who may need extra help should you become unwell. Also have instructions handy for how people can help with important things like paying bills, or household chores like taking care of plants.

What do you need in order to isolate?

Make sure you and your household are prepared for a period of self-isolation or quarantine lasting at least 10 days. Does the person who will do your shopping know what sort of things you like to eat? Are you able to start popping away some yummy, easy, and nutritious meals in the freezer? What about some treats? Do you have things like tissues, sanitary products, and contraception? How about pet food and litter? Don’t forget things to keep you entertained. Think also about what you might need work-wise, if you need to isolate and work from home.

How will people isolate from each other in your household?

The main way people get infected is living with someone with Covid-19. This virus is airborne so spreads through the air and people are infectious for a few days before they develop symptoms. If someone in your house tests positive then you have probably already been exposed, but you may not have been infected yet, especially if you are vaccinated.

Are people able to isolate away from each other?

What this means in practice is keeping the person with Covid away from all other family members and pets. Is there somewhere separate in the house they can stay? Keep the whole place well ventilated by opening doors and windows to minimise contaminated air from lingering and exposing others. It would also help if the person with Covid wore a mask to reduce the amount of virus they were shedding. In the past, a lot of emphasis has been placed on disinfecting everything and maybe even wearing gloves. Those are precautions that work well for droplet spread infections rather than airborne infections so I’m not sure how useful they really are. I wouldn’t bother with gloves. Regularly washing hands is far more effective. As for disinfecting every surface? I think opening the windows is way more important.

If you get Covid, what symptoms should you expect?

The data from the UK Covid-19 Infection survey gives us a good idea. They found that about half of people infected with delta experienced symptoms and the most common symptoms were cough, fatigue, headache, sore throat, fever, loss of taste or smell, and aches and pains. You may just get one of those symptoms, or a combination. About four out of every ten people experience a cough and/or fatigue. A little over one in ten experienced gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea.

I haven’t been able to find much about how severe you can expect the symptoms to be, although that sort of thing is always subjective. Man flu, I’m looking at you! One of the big mistakes made right at the start of the pandemic was health officials classifying many people as experiencing what they called “mild” disease. What they really meant was that most people didn’t need to go to hospital. But that didn’t mean people had what you and I would probably call a mild illness. Plenty of people feel pretty knocked about by Covid, so prepare to feel quite unwell. If you’ve ever had the actual flu, think that level of unwell. We also know that the older you are, the more likely you will be to have a tougher time. The guidance from the US says most people will start feeling better after a week.

It’s worth noting that the UK survey was done under the background of a high rate of vaccination so the chances of people developing symptoms will be higher if they are unvaccinated or if it’s been less than two weeks since they received their second vaccine dose. If you are fully vaccinated, you are less likely to experience symptoms and if you do you will probably experience fewer symptoms.

Monitoring and relieving symptoms

If you do experience symptoms, you’ll likely need things to help monitor and relieve them. In the meantime, I suggest you pop into your local pharmacy and talk to your pharmacist about what they recommend for treating the symptoms on the list. Let them know if you are taking other medicines. If they recommend any homeopathic products or ear candles, I’d recommend finding yourself another pharmacy or pharmacist.

One of the things you might have heard mentioned a lot is the pulse oximeter. This is a little device that you pop on your finger which monitors your oxygen saturation levels. A healthy person will normally have readings in the 94-100% range. If you have a mild respiratory illness, readings can drop to 90%. Below this level is when someone will likely need to be given extra oxygen. If your levels start dropping and you’ve been given a number to call, call it. If you don’t know who to call, get in touch with your GP or other health provider, or Healthline.

In saying that, normal oxygen saturation levels can vary from person to person depending on their health condition, normal respiratory rate, the amount of oxygen in the air, and the type of activity they are performing. And like many other devices, they were designed with white people in mind so may not work as well for people with darker skin. In other words, if you are feeling breathless but your pulse oximeter suggests you are fine, don’t put off calling for advice.

If you have a fever, a thermometer will be helpful to keep an eye on your temperature. Normal body temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius. A mild fever is 38 to 38.9 and a high fever is above 39. Above 40 is a very high fever. Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, and wear light clothes. Putting cool cloths on your face, arms, and neck should help a little. Take paracetamol and ibuprofen every four to six hours but make sure you keep track of how many you are taking. Generic versions of these medicines are fine, unless you want to go for the faster acting versions, but they’ll be much more expensive. If you are taking ibuprofen, make sure you keep hydrated so as not to cause problems for your kidneys.

In summary: it’s time to make an isolation plan. You don’t even need to start from scratch. Test it out. Check in with your family, friends, and neighbours. Does everyone have a plan? Will they be able to get what they need? Watching out for each other is how we’ve gotten through the pandemic so far and its how we’ll get through the next phase too.

Keep going!