Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association

Diagnosis COVID

How to cope with a COVID-19 infection when you’re away

by Alexis Campbell

 

If you’ve chosen to travel and live abroad in the middle of a pandemic (or are thinking about doing so), one of your biggest worries may be the chance of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

While you’re right to be concerned, there’s no reason to live in fear. If you’re ready to be a risk-taker, now is the time to learn how to prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 infection, and to learn how to take care of yourself or your partner if you do become infected.

Risk assessment tools for use when travellingU.S. only:MyCOVIDRisk19 and Me COVID-19 Risk Score Calculator U.S. and Europe:COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool

 

A little bit of background

SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first coronavirus to infect humans. Actually, coronaviruses are pretty common. They’re usually associated with mild respiratory illnesses similar to the common cold. (In fact, coronaviruses are responsible for about 20% of colds.) A few coronaviruses, such as the ones responsible for SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome), which caused an epidemic in Toronto in 2003, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and of course, COVID-19, cause severe infections. The others are nothing a healthy person needs to worry about.

You’re most likely to become infected with a coronavirus if you’re in close proximity to an infected person. The coronavirus can spread through close personal contact (such as a handshake or a hug), through respiratory droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, or by touching an object contaminated with coronavirus and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth without having washed your hands.

Estimating COVID-19 risk

We’ve repeatedly heard the ways to help prevent COVID-19: stay at home as much as possible; stay away from people (except for members of your own household); wear masks; practise social distancing; and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

All good advice, but it doesn’t answer the questions which many of us may have. Is it safe to go to the beach? What about a restaurant? Does having a party outside lower people’s chances of getting infected?

For snowbirds going south, there are several tools available to help you get an idea of that risk. MyCOVIDRisk estimates your relative risk based on what you are doing and where you are located in the United States. For example, four hours at a backyard barbecue in Clearwater with 10 people not wearing masks is a low-risk activity, while two hours in a restaurant with 30 other people, all wearing masks, is high risk.

Another tool, the 19 and Me COVID-19 Risk Score Calculator, provides a numerical score that helps to estimate your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 or developing a severe case, based on your location in the United States, whether you are living with conditions that put you at risk of severe disease, your vaccination status, the safety precautions which you take, and how likely you are to come into close contact with other people.

The COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool calculates risk based on the location and the number of people attending an event. Here, “risk level” is the chance that at least one person at the event will be COVID 19-positive. With a few clicks, you can obtain this information for any county in the U.S. or (if you’re travelling internationally) for any country worldwide.

Have health kit, will travelYou can start preparing for COVID-19 even before you leave home by putting together a travel health kit. In addition to the usual contents of a first aid kit, you should pack supplies that you may need on hand if you think that you may be infected. These include a thermometer, plenty of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disposable latex or vinyl gloves, disinfecting spray such as hydrogen peroxide, disinfecting wipes and a supply of disposable masks.

Who’s more at risk

While anyone with COVID-19 can get sick, some people are more likely to experience more severe disease or serious outcomes because of their age or medical conditions. People at risk include:

Older adults (the risk increases every 10 years, especially if you’re over 60).

  • People with chronic medical conditions, including lung and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, dementia or stroke.
  • People who are immunocompromised, including those with an underlying medical condition such as cancer, or who are taking medication that weakens the immune system (such as chemotherapy).
  • People living with obesity (BMI higher than 40).

Since even healthy seniors are at higher risk, it’s definitely worth taking preventive measures such as limiting close contact to your immediate household, practising social distancing and wearing masks, whether you stay at home or travel. If you’re infected, you should also stay alert for signs that your COVID-19 is getting more serious (see “COVID 411” and “COVID 911” on page 39).

Planning ahead

Are you sick of hearing how to avoid catching COVID-19? Good, because we’re going to focus on what to do if you do get infected – including how to be ready in case you become sick.

Put on your survivalist hat. Stay informed and be sure that you’re ready, by:

  • Visiting national, state and municipal websites for the latest details on COVID-19 and risk levels in your community.
  • Talking with your health-care provider about how to minimize your infection risk and ensure that you have enough medication and medical supplies at home to last for a few weeks.
  • Researching where you can get tested for COVID-19.
  • Identifying which hospital you should visit if you need medical help. (Your health-care provider may be able to provide some advice.)
  • Making sure that your pantry has everything you would need if you were confined to your home for a few weeks: dry, tinned and frozen food; paper products; pet food (if you have a pet); and cleaning and disinfecting supplies.
  • Organizing a few people to help you (buying groceries, picking up medications) if you can’t leave your home.
  • Learning which services are available to deliver groceries, medications and medical supplies.
  • Getting to know Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet (or, if you’re ambitious, all three!). If you are stuck at home in isolation, you’ll be able to see your friends, even if you can’t visit in person.
  • Monitoring yourself for symptoms.

When COVID goes undercoverEven if you feel perfectly healthy, you may be infected with COVID-19 and pass it on to others. Some people who are infected don’t experience symptoms for up to two weeks after they become infected, while others never develop symptoms at all. Two good reasons to continue “social distancing” and wearing masks when you can’t stay away from other people.

I’m sick! But do I have COVID-19?

While the only way to be sure of a COVID-19 diagnosis is to get tested, you should still stay alert for symptoms that could be signs of an infection. Some of the frequently reported symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • New or worsening cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Temperature equal to or higher than 38oC or feeling feverish
  • Chills
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Muscle or body aches
  • New loss of smell or taste
  • Headache
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting)
  • Feeling very unwell.

If you do develop one or more of these symptoms, stay home and call your health-care provider or local public health unit to discuss your situation. Don’t go straight to a clinic or health-care facility. Call ahead instead, so that the facility can prevent other people from getting exposed.

Should you get tested?

The only way to confirm that you have COVID-19 is a laboratory test (usually a PCR test). Not everyone gets tested, however. If you’re wondering whether you should be tested, Health Canada has a quiz to help you decide. The COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool asks about your symptoms, whether you’ve had close contact with someone known or suspected to have COVID-19, whether you’ve travelled outside of Canada, and if difficulty with breathing is making it harder for you to manage a chronic health condition.

If you know you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, your best move may be to call your doctor, who can provide guidance as to whether you need a test and where to get tested.

If you test positive or have symptoms

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good news: most people with COVID-19 develop only mild symptoms and can recover in the comfort of their own home. You may start to feel better in about a week.

The bad news is that someone infected with COVID-19 will be stuck at home for a couple of weeks. Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19, or has tested positive, needs to stay in isolation for at least 10 days. People who have symptoms and a positive PCR test need to wait for 10 days, then (if necessary) wait until their symptoms have cleared up, then isolate for an additional three days. People who are infected but don’t have symptoms should remain in isolation for 10 days.

Self-care for COVID-19 is as you would expect if you had a case of the flu: bed rest, plenty of fluids and pain relievers as needed.

How long should you isolate?If you have a positive PCR test and no symptoms: 10 daysIf you have a positive PCR test and symptoms: Until symptoms end (minimum 10 days), then wait 3 additional days.If you haven’t been able to get tested, talk to your doctor or health-care provider to determine how long you need to isolate.

Caring for someone with COVID-19 at home

If you’re providing care for a friend, spouse or partner who is ill, you’ll need to take care of them while protecting yourself. Your first step is to ensure that you have essential supplies on hand, including:

  • A thermometer
  • Medical masks (such as surgical masks)
  • Eye protection (a face shield or goggles)
  • Disposable gloves
  • Non-prescription medication to reduce fever (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or ASA)
  • Tissues
  • Disposable paper towels
  • Touch-free waste container with a plastic liner
  • Dish soap, hand soap and laundry soap
  • Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

You will also need household supplies to keep your home as infection-free as possible, including:

  • A one-step cleaning/disinfecting product
  • Cleaning products for electronics (such as alcohol wipes)
  • A hard-surface COVID-19 disinfectant approved by the government (in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has “List N,” which catalogues disinfectants expected to kill SARS-CoV-2).

Provide the sick person with supportive care (ensure that they get rest and lots of fluids, medication to reduce fever, if necessary) and ensure that they get the help they need if their symptoms worsen (see “COVID 411” and “COVID 911”).

Part of caring for a sick person is keeping the environment as clean and virus-free as possible. In addition to your usual cleaning, be sure to regularly (preferably daily) clean and disinfect the high-touch surfaces in your home, such as toilets, doorknobs, phones, bedside tables, television remotes, laundry containers and any other objects or surfaces that both you and the sick person may touch during the course of the day. Electronics such as tablets, cellular/smart phones and keyboards should be cleaned with alcohol prep wipes containing at least 70% alcohol.

Sharing a washroomIf you and the sick person must share a bathroom, ensure that the toilet lid is down before flushing and always clean and disinfect the bathroom after each use.

Protecting yourself

If your spouse or partner (or someone in your household) has COVID-19, protecting your health is just as important as caring for the person who’s sick. (The last thing you want is for two people to have COVID-19 at the same time!)

To minimize your chances of becoming infected, keep your distance as much as possible. You should sleep in a separate room (if one is available), use a different washroom, and avoid sharing personal objects such as eating utensils, towels and face cloths, or electronic devices. If you’re going to be less than two metres (about six feet) away from the sick person, wear all your personal protective equipment (PPE) − medical mask, eye protection and disposable gloves. The sick person should also wear a medical mask. Provide necessary care, but limit the time you spend close to the sick person.

Disposable gloves are important because they help to prevent you from contaminating your hands when you’re in the sick person’s space. Wear gloves when touching the sick person or anything in their surroundings, including surfaces which they touch, and their laundry or other soiled items (dishes, utensils, tissues). You should also wear gloves when you are washing the sick person’s dishes, doing their laundry or disinfecting surfaces which they have touched. Be sure to remove the gloves once you leave that space, and never reuse them.

Sharing a bedroomIf you and a sick person can’t sleep in separate rooms, try to sleep in separate beds.

Using your PPE

PPE will only protect you if you use it properly. Proper use begins with learning to put on and take off your equipment.

To put on your PPE:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Holding your mask by its ear loops (or ties), put it on your face without touching the front.
  • Put on your eye protection (goggles or face shield).
  • Put on some disposable gloves.

To remove your PPE:

  • Remove your disposable gloves and put in a no-touch waste container lined with plastic.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Remove your eye goggles or face shield without touching the front (it’s considered contaminated).
  • Take off your mask by untying the ties or pulling off the ear loops. Again, avoid touching the front of your mask.
  • Wash your hands again.

Caring for your PPE

If you use disposable protective equipment, all you need to do is toss it into a garbage container lined with a plastic bag. However, if you have reusable equipment, you’ll need to do a bit more work.

For eye protection, wash your goggles or face mask thoroughly with soap and water, disinfect it, then place it in a clean and disinfected storage space until the next time you use it.

Masks should be placed directly into the laundry and washed in a hot cycle with regular detergent, then dried thoroughly. If you don’t do laundry every day, put your reusable mask in a lined container separate from your regular laundry hamper until you’re able to wash it. Don’t use it again until it’s clean.

COVID 411

Most people who develop COVID-19 will feel better in about a week. But what if you start to feel worse?

You may:

  • Experience mild to moderate shortness of breath
  • Be unable to lie down because you’re having trouble breathing
  • Have difficulty managing a chronic condition because of breathing difficulties

If you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s time to call your doctor or get in touch with another health-care provider. They can talk to you about your symptoms and determine the next steps which you should take.

COVID 911

Some symptoms indicate that you need immediate medical attention:

  • Severe breathing difficulties (struggling to breathe, speaking in single words)
  • Severe chest pain
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Confusion
  • Losing consciousness

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. If you’re visiting emergency, remember to call ahead first to let them know about your symptoms and that you have (or believe that you may have) COVID-19.

A final thought

In a world turned upside down, the most important thing may be to live a life that’s both healthy and as close to normal as possible. If sunshine and warmth save your sanity during the cold months, going south for the winter may be a choice which you’re ready to make. Just remember to play it safe: wear your mask, keep your distance and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!

 

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