If you hunker down against coronavirus, don't stop reaching out, experts say

By American Heart Association News

Mint Images RF, Getty Images
(Mint Images RF, Getty Images)

As more communities deal with outbreaks of COVID-19, those at risk are being advised to stay home and stock up to protect themselves.

But experts say the need to hunker down does not mean people shouldn't reach out to help.

"When there's a time of anxiety, that is not a time to pull back from connectedness," said Dr. Franklin Watkins, associate professor in geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "That's a time that we actually need to lean into social connectedness and lean into our family members and our friends and acquaintances."

The disease does call for precautions and for staying up to speed with the constantly evolving statistics and advice. That's particularly important for those in higher-risk groups: older adults or people who have underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, weak immune systems or lung disease.

Those precautions include keeping such people from places where they might be exposed to the coronavirus – such as a grocery store or a pharmacy full of sick people, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during an AARP teleconference on March 10.

"So, for example, we're recommending that you have supplies on hand, like medications for blood pressure and diabetes, and over-the-counter medications and medical supplies, and have enough household items and groceries so that you can stay at home for a period of time," she said. "Because you may need to stay at home or at least closer to home for a couple weeks, especially if there is spread in your community."

Higher-risk people also should avoid close contact with people who are sick, Messonnier said. "If your grandchild is expected to come visit and they have a fever and a runny nose, it may not be the right time for them to visit you."

Listen closely to the CDC's advice, Watkins recommends. That does not mean you need to make a panicky run to the warehouse store to fill your SUV with toilet paper, he said. Focus on the basics.

And it does not mean abandoning loved ones or neighbors in isolation.

Watkins said if you can't physically visit someone, even a simple phone call can help. "By all means, stay connected."

Messonnier said, "If you're delivering food to somebody and you're leaving it at the door, and then they're opening the door, you are perfectly safe. There's no risk."

Watkins said if you're making an extended visit, it would be wise to keep a six-foot distance. "Would I be afraid to hug someone I love? Not necessarily," he said. "But I would try to limit close contact if I had a high-risk person that I was worried about."

Author Liz O'Donnell, founder of the caregiving website WorkingDaughter.com, said adults with older parents have been anxious about quarantines at long-term care facilities.

"I see some caregivers talking about, 'Should I bring my parents home if they're living in a facility?'" she said. "And I think one of the things we think about there is, would you be able to care for your parents if they were indeed to get sick while they were living with you?"

If a care facility goes into quarantine or prohibits visitors, family members should be comfortable asking questions, O'Donnell said. "How are the residents being socialized? Or how are they being isolated? Is my mother OK? Is my father getting his medication? Is he scared?"

At the same time, she said, people need to have "a high amount of compassion also for the workers."

For loved ones who live on their own, she suggests people ask the same sort of questions that might help them prepare for a blizzard. Do they have a cellphone or tablet computer they're comfortable using? Is it charged? Is there a neighbor you can call if you can't reach your parents?

Caregivers also can provide a calming presence – and help an at-risk person get accurate information, O'Donnell said. Don't minimize the risks, she said, but listen and address any fears they might have.

And then help them make sense of it: "'So Mom – here's what we know, here's what the CDC has said, here's what I'm doing for you. Don't worry about what Aunt Janet just sent.'"

Editor's note: Because of the rapidly evolving events surrounding the coronavirus, the facts and advice presented in this story may have changed since publication. Visit Heart.org for the latest coverage, and check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials for the most recent guidance.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].

If unusual circumstances are adding to your stress level, you can take steps to decompress and get a handle on your anxiety. Try our tips and techniques to help you feel calmer and more centered in trying times.

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If you’re not usually a homebody, being at home more can be challenging for you and your family. Try to avoid the temptation to overdo the screen time.

Here are some more simple tips for fitness activities that almost anyone can do. Choose the ones that work for your circumstances and comfort level.

Fitness fans who are avoiding a crowded gym or popular exercise class can create a great at-home circuit workout.

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Steering clear of crowds? Stock up on healthy, affordable staples. (Always compare nutrition labels and choose options with the least amount of added salt and sugar.)

Here are some suggestions:

  • Canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables
  • Canned fish and meats like light tuna or white-meat chicken packed in water
  • Frozen chicken breasts (they’re safe for up to a year when stored airtight in a freezer set to zero degrees or below)  
  • Dried or canned beans and legumes
  • Whole grains like oats, brown rice and quinoa 
  • Dried herbs and spices

Remember: Shelled eggs are safe for 3-5 weeks, and unopened egg substitute is safe for up to a year in the refrigerator.

More Staples

Find tasty dishes you can make with shelf-stable ingredients on our Recipe site.

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If you have a chronic condition, talk to your health care provider and be extra vigilant about safety and cleanliness.

Here’s more information on precautions patients can take

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