Continued coronavirus preparedness
By now, you’ve already stocked and restocked your medicine cabinet and mask supplies. But we’re not out of the woods just yet. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to last about 18 to 24 months altogether, according to estimates based on past flu pandemics. So, you’ll likely need refills and possibly a few new items to help get you safely through, whether by avoiding coronavirus infection or even recovering from a milder case at home.
Medical experts offer these tips on health devices and supplies to protect you and your family — and discuss a few items you might not really need.
A pulse oximeter is a small, painless device that measures oxygen levels in your blood. You simply slide the pulse ox over a fingertip or clip it onto your earlobe, where it shines infrared light through your skin to give an instant digital result. Normal readings range from about 95% to 100%.
There’s no gold standard or guideline as to whether healthy people need to own the device, says Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh, a pulmonologist, associate director of the pulmonary clinic and now clinical lead for post-COVID-19 patients at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Prior to the pandemic, people who we usually instructed to have a pulse oximeter had underlying lung disease,” she says.
However, COVID-19 can cause so-called “happy hypoxia,” in which otherwise asymptomatic people have low blood oxygen levels without realizing it — at first. Oxygen saturation levels also indicate how someone with diagnosed COVID-19 is progressing.
“If you should get ill with COVID-19, you can oftentimes, if you have mild disease, be monitored at home,” says Lutchmansingh, who is also an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “One of the main reasons we bring patients into the hospital is if they have low oxygen levels.”
Fever is a common COVID-19 symptom. “As we need to monitor ourselves going into the fall and approaching the flu season, everyone needs to have a working thermometer at home,” says Dr. Mia Taormina, chair of the infectious disease department at Illinois-based DuPage Medical Group. “It’s shocking how many people don’t have one, and then when they need it, to find that there wasn’t one available.”
The type of thermometer you have matters less than whether you actually have one in working order. Varieties include touchless or temporal scanners that measure the temperature of the temporal artery on your forehead, digital oral, ear and rectal thermometers and tried-and-true mercury thermometers.
Although readings may vary slightly across versions, each comes with instructions. “There are different parameters for different types of thermometers,” Taormina says. “The temporal scanner thermometers, the ones in the ear, the ones below the tongue — as long as we have a working thermometer in the house, that’s going to be a step in the right direction.”
A single thermometer shared by an entire household could pose an infection risk unless you take basic precautions. Temporal scanners and digital probes come with disposable covers or sleeves to prevent spreading germs from person to person. Make sure you have an adequate supply of covers to ensure good hygiene when taking temperatures.
Members of households with traditional oral mercury thermometers need to do thorough alcohol wipe-downs. “There are also sleeves that can be placed on an oral thermometer and the thermometer can be sanitized with an alcohol wipe between uses,” Taormina adds.
Alcohol wipes — the type nurses use to disinfect your skin before giving an injection — have several household uses during the pandemic. Wiping down medical devices (like thermometers) is easy. Just make sure to let surfaces dry before reusing or touching.
Consider using alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol to disinfect touch screens, keyboards and other components of cellphones, tablets and remote controls, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.
Are visitors really at least 6 feet apart? If people who aren’t your usual contacts come into your household, simple items like a tape measure could help you arrange indoor spaces to promote adequate physical distancing, says Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection control and an infectious disease physician at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System.
Physical distancing, also known as social distancing, is key for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. If you open your home to limited visits from family members or friends, you can take action to help keep everyone safe.
Additional seating can make physical distancing easier. For distancing purposes, it’s preferable for visitors to be seated than standing, says Bleasdale, who is also an assistant professor of clinical medicine in the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
“When people gather, if they’re not seated, you see them tend to be drawn together inside and outside,” she explains. “And the physical distance is hard to maintain, just because of our social nature.” So keep a few extra folding chairs in your basement or storage area, and break them out when company calls.
Having fever-reducers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen on hand can keep you more comfortable if you’re recovering from relatively mild COVID-19 at home. It’s easier and more practical to stock up on over-the-counter medications before you’re coping with a quarantine or self-isolation situation.
Although you may be well and fever-free now, that can change. Fever is not necessarily the first sign of COVID-19 infection. “A fair number of patients have other symptoms indicating that something’s wrong before the fever happens,” Lutchmansingh says.
Prescription drugs and medical supplies
If you can stock up on one or two extra months of prescription medications, try to do so. Some people with chronic health conditions have contended with medication shortages, particularly during pandemic surges.
Patients with lupus who rely on the drug hydroxychloroquine to manage the condition struggled to get their prescriptions refilled when the drug was being touted as a potential COVID-19 remedy earlier in the year.
In March, patients with asthma experienced shortages of albuterol inhalers as hospitals increased their use for patients with COVID-19. Fortunately, the supply has since improved. On April 8, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first generic albuterol inhaler in the U.S.
If you have a condition like diabetes, you need to keep an adequate amount of medical supplies — like finger-stick lancets to monitor blood sugar — at all times and even more so during the pandemic.
You can still rely on liquid disinfectants or disinfectant wipes to keep household surfaces germ-free as possible. However, wipes have become harder to find with schools preparing to open, Bleasdale notes.
“If you can’t get disinfectant wipes, other common disinfectants are effective,” she says. “You just have to look at the label.” When choosing a disinfecting product, check the label for the following information:
— Types of viruses and bacteria it kills.
— Contact time or wet time — how long it needs to stay wet on a surface to be effective.
— An EPA registration number that matches the list of EPA-approved disinfectants.
When cleaning and disinfecting, use disposable gloves and discard them after cleaning, or dedicate a pair of reusable gloves for disinfecting against COVID-19. Always wash your hands after removing gloves.
Although gloves play a role in pandemic protection, particularly for health care workers, they may do more harm than good if not used and disposed of correctly.
“If you are cleaning high-touch surfaces and you’re using gloves during cleaning, or if you’re helping a family member who may be elderly, you can certainly wear gloves in the home,” Taormina says. “But gloves are meant to be single-use and removed. They’re not meant to be worn in grocery stores or other places.”
Continually worn, contaminated gloves can potentially spread germs and carry disease from one person to another. Instead, she says, you’re far better off by practicing frequent hand-washing to keep your hands clean.
Hand sanitizer and soap
Although it’s a challenge to find some long-familiar hand sanitizer brands, alternatives are cropping up everywhere, including floral scented and even glitter-infused products. Whether you find branded hand sanitizer at the auto parts store or generic brands at the dollar store, the ingredients listed on the label are what really matter, Taormina says.
“The main ingredient should be either ethyl or alcohol or isopropyl alcohol,” she says. “You don’t want anything that is methyl-alcohol containing, because that be absorbed through your skin and be more toxic. And you’re looking for 60% to 70% alcohol as a minimum content.”
While it’s definitely handy to tuck a bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse, car or backpack, be sure to stay well-stocked with soap as an at-home mainstay.
If your mask collection is wearing thin, now is the time to replenish. Options keep increasing, including clear masks to enhance communication with those who have hearing impairments.
“Masks contain your respiratory secretions,” Bleasdale explains. “They have to cover the mucous membranes of your nose and mouth. A mask protects you should someone cough.” Conversely, if you have the coronavirus but don’t know it, masks contain your respiratory secretions within and protect those around you.
However, your eyes are also mucous membranes that remain open and potentially vulnerable, she points out. You can take steps to protect your eyes from the coronavirus.
Keep a handy mask cache near your door to grab one on the way out to run errands. Also, “make sure that you’ve got masks available when people come over, so if they forget masks they can still mask within your house,” Bleasdale advises.
What you don’t need: UV light
Some hospitals use UV light devices to sanitize patients’ room after discharge and disinfect other contaminated surfaces. However, you don’t need to invest in an at-home UV light device in an effort to kill the novel coronavirus.
No consumer UV light device has been approved by the FDA for cleaning, disinfecting or sanitizing home surfaces or medical devices — including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices and accessories — to date.
Although the FDA has not received problem reports related to such products, potential risks to users from unintentional or excessive exposure to UV light during cleaning may include eye injury, skin burns or an increased risk of skin cancer, according to the agency.
At-home health supplies for COVID-19
These simple items can help keep household members healthy or ease recovery during the pandemic:
— Pulse oximeter.
— Thermometer and disposable covers.
— Alcohol wipes.
— Tape measure.
— Additional seating.
— Fever reducers.
— Prescription drugs and medical devices.
— Air purifier.
— Hand sanitizer and soap.
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