How to self-isolate when you have a family

Dr. Ben Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, offers tips for what to do if you or a family member might have the coronavirus.

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Dr. Ben Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital,

Dr. Ben Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, recommends calling your doctor first if you suspect you might have the coronavirus.

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If you’re holed up at home trying to find a way to work amid the clatter and clutter of family life, you already know about social distancing.

But what happens if you start to feel sick at home? Say, you have possible signs of the coronavirus: a fever, a cough, perhaps shortness of breath. How do you keep the rest of the family from getting sick?

“The first thing is call your doctor,” said Dr. Ben Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s medical intensive care unit. “Everybody is different. Not everyone is perfectly healthy, and there may be certain things about your health status that you need to discuss with your doctor.”

But in general, Singer said, after a call to the doctor, people need to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means some sort of self-isolation.

“This involves doing some really tough things, particularly if you have young kids around and other people who need you,” Singer said. “So that’s isolating that [sick] person as much as possible. So ideally, having them in their own room, their own bathroom if possible, their own set of towels, their own set of bedding.”

If the sick person has access to a “simple surgical face mask,” they should use it to avoid spreading germs.

A comfortable basement or a converted attic are all good — if not ideal — options for self-isolation.

“Not everyone is that lucky,” Singer said. “You live in an apartment, you live in a smaller space, it can be challenging. The bottom line is doing the best you can.”

And how long should someone stay isolated?

It can be confusing. Experts still learning about the new virus have said it appears to take about 14 days from possible exposure to developing symptoms. But if you’re already sick — and suspect you might have the virus — the number is “less clear,” Singer said.

“Certainly, until you are symptom free would be a fair recommendation,” he said. “That’s also something to discuss with your doctor, about when it’s reasonable to stop that self-isolation.”

But let’s say, it’s not you but your young child who gets sick. The basement or attic probably isn’t an option. Make sure children do the other things doctors and the CDC have recommended, including frequent, 20-second hand washing with warm water and soap, as well as having them avoid, as much as possible, touching their faces. Also wiping down surfaces, such as counters, cellphones and remote control units.

“If there is a silver lining to this, it’s that young kids, we think, have a much more mild course to this illness,” Singer said. “They can still spread it, but we are not seeing kids get severely ill at the same rate we are seeing in adults — and certainly older adults.”

Are we at the point when we should temporarily stop kissing our own children to avoid the spread of the disease?

“In an ideal world, we would,” Singer said. “But there’s more to it. We are still humans. We still love our kids. There is a psychological balance to this too.”

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