Here's What You Can Do to Protect High-Risk Family Members During the COVID-19 Outbreak

There are some extra steps you can take to make sure everyone's as safe as possible.

COVID-19 doesn't treat everyone the same. For most—about 80 percent of people, according to some research—coronavirus shows up as mild symptoms, like fever, cough, and shortness of breath. For others, specifically those in high-risk groups like older adults or those with chronic illnesses like diabetes and lung disease, the virus can strike harder and be more likely to lead to severe illness.

Because COVID-19 disproportionately affects the high-risk community, the role of caregivers is especially important and complicated right now.While it's important for everyone, especially caregivers, to continue following the precautionary measures recommended by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—like frequently washing your hands for 20 seconds at a time and keeping common surfaces clean—one of the most important measures for high-risk individuals and those caring for them is practicing as much social distancing as possible. "Public space is where the risk [of exposure and infection] is going to be the highest," Ronan Factora, MD, an internal medicine and geriatrics specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.

In addition to those preventive measures, those who are currently caring for high-risk individuals should be aware of additional steps to further protect themselves and those in their care during the coronavirus outbreak. Here, three extra steps all caregivers should take while looking after someone with a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

1. Make a contingency plan

If you're a caregiver it's important to track who (if anyone) knows about your responsibilities. "A lot of times that one [high-risk] family member relies on that caregiver to do everything," says Dr. Factora. Many times, a single caregiver may be in charge of picking up and dispensing their medications, taking them to doctor's appointments, and doing their grocery shopping.

If you provide that level of care to a high-risk individual, it's important to consider what would happen if you yourself became sick with COVID-19 and weren't allowed to come into contact with the person your'e caring for. You might want to consider giving someone else a list of your loved one's medicine routine, for example, in case you aren't able to oversee it yourself before this pandemic is over. "That contingency plan may involve having other family members take [on] that responsibility," says Dr. Factora, in an effort to protect and care for that high-risk individual.

2. Resist the urge to visit loved ones in nursing homes and other settings

It might be your first instinct to check on your loved one in-person, but you really need to think twice about giving into that temptation right now, explains Dr. Factora— especially if your loved one lives in an assisted living facility. Remember, you may be able to spread COVID-19 without showing symptoms of the virus. If you visit a nursing home while carrying the virus, you could potentially infect dozens of elderly people who are most at-risk for dying from the virus.

As difficult as it might be to stay separated from a loved one in a nursing home, it's important to remember that staff members are caring for them. "Their meals are prepared; they have assistance," says Dr. Factora. "Avoid exposure if it's unnecessary."

If the person you care for lives outside of a nursing home, be especially cautious when you visit them. If you're in charge of getting their groceries, consider leaving those groceries by their front door instead of going into their home, which increases your risk of infecting them, especially if you've recently been in a public space. Another precaution to take is avoiding letting children visit the elderly. "Family members want to be with each other, but this is a time to exercise more caution from that standpoint," says Dr. Factora. Consider ways you can keep in touch with your loved ones virtually, like through phone calls or FaceTime sessions.

3. Don’t forget about other health conditions

In the frenzy that has become the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be easy to overlook other health conditions, or the possibility of other health emergencies. While it's important to monitor your loved ones if they start exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus, such as a high temperature, don't forget to monitor symptoms of other health conditions they have or are prone to.

"Make sure that persons health is in good shape," says Dr. Factora. That means keeping an eye on any chronic illnesses they may have, and staying in close virtual contact via phone or video chat to make sure they're not feeling any symptoms that may signal the need of emergency medical assistance.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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