U.S. News & World Report
Consumer advice, news, analysis and the original rankings guide.Follow this author
By Michael O. Schroeder
As the coronavirus continues its rapid spread internationally and across the U.S., many Americans are heeding public health advice from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for the possibility of a lengthy home stay.
COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that first caused an outbreak in China in 2019 and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday, has rapidly infected people around the globe. Most vulnerable to the viral threat are Americans over age 60 and those with chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, according to the CDC. The agency has urged those individuals to “stay at home as much as possible.”
The coronavirus can cause symptoms ranging from cough to high fever and shortness of breath. And in some cases, it can be deadly, particularly in those populations most at risk.
So having what you need to remain at home for a longer period, possibly weeks, is important. That way you’ll be prepared, experts say, if you need to decrease contact and socialization – whether because you're sick or trying to prevent illness if there’s an outbreak of coronavirus in your community. Rather than panicking and buying more than you need, it’s about being adequately stocked: “Just in case we need to shelter in place, or in case stores have limited supplies,” says Dr. David Mushatt, chief of adult infectious diseases at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
Here’s what experts suggest having on hand:
While advice varies, it’s a good idea to have a month’s supply of any medications you’re taking. Also, keep handy any self-care supplies, including items needed to manage chronic disease like blood glucose test strips for diabetes.
“Check to make sure you have at least a 30-day supply of your prescription medications, and have other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes and vitamins,” advises Anthony Tornetta, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.
Also, have a thermometer and medications to reduce fever, like acetaminophen or naproxen, suggests Bill Gentry, director of the community preparedness and disaster management program and an associate professor of health policy and management at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
First, if you hate black beans, don’t buy a dozen cans of them.
While the focus should be stocking up on things that won’t go bad in storage, such as soup and other canned food, make sure to get foods you like and are comfortable preparing, Gentry recommends.
“Non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items are the best to have on hand. These could be things already in your pantry, such as canned goods or snack bars that can last and be easily stored. If you have an infant, make sure to stock up on extra baby food and formula,” Tornetta adds. “Similarly, if you have pets, make sure to have extra pet food in your home, as well. The Red Cross recommends having a two-week supply of these food staples for every person in your household.”
To stock up on food strategically, you'll want to do meal planning in overdrive. Gentry suggests meal planning for two meals a day considering two different scenarios. If you're home self-quarantined, "less calories needed since you will be more stationary," Gentry says. "When you are sick, rest is key, so two meals a day will keep your strength up and your body rested."
You might also consider foods or drink you can't do without. So if you prefer to always have milk on hand, you might purchase shelf-stable milk that's been through ultra-high-temperature pasteurization, which isn't refrigerated. You can keep this or another substitute, like powdered milk, in your pantry for longer storage.
It’s good to be prepared for any kind of disaster. But since coronavirus isn’t a hurricane or other natural disaster that has the potential to cut power, buying things like frozen veggies or ready to eat meals that can keep for a significant amount of time may be helpful too. Just make sure to regularly replace any perishable foods and don’t neglect non-perishable stocks. Also, if you’re getting canned vegetables, soups and other canned foods, look for low salt varieties, and make sure to continue to be health conscious in all your choices of foods, experts say. Eating well supports overall health and can bolster immunity at a time when that’s critical.
Wherever you are, regular hand-washing is important to prevent the spread of disease, including coronavirus. For home, soap and water are more than sufficient.
If for some reason, you eventually need to leave your quarantine, it's a good idea to have antibacterial wipes and/or hand sanitizer gel for the car or on your person. Make sure your hand sanitizer is at least 60% alcohol.
Wash your hands with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you don’t have a sink and soap handy. Do this for at least 20 seconds. Hum the “Happy Birthday" song twice if you’re not sure, the CDC recommends. Wash your hands before, during and after preparing food, before eating, before and after caring for someone who is sick, after changing diapers, after using the bathroom, any other time it seems reasonable and just frequently throughout the day.
Also, make sure you have all you need to keep your home sanitized. You should have disinfectant cleaners and disposable items, such as Kleenex and paper towels, Gentry suggests. You should also have wipes and diapers and any other supplies you need if you have a baby, he advises.
“When COVID-19 attains community spread it may possibly disrupt your normal day-to-day routines, especially if you become infected,” Gentry says.
“First and foremost, it is a good idea to always have a ‘flu kit’ on hand for our normal flu season. This would be a thermometer, fever reducers, liquids to replace electrolytes and food for two weeks,” he says. “Research if there are grocery delivery outlets near you.”
Gentry adds that being prepared to keep infants as well as pets healthy is a must. In addition, he advises keeping your home, vehicle and phone wiped down to kill any virus that's on surfaces.
“Finally, part of any preparedness plan is to be self-sufficient,” he adds. “Have gas in your vehicles, some cash on hand, and check on your family and neighbors. Stocking up on all of these items keeps you from having to go out if you get sick or a family member gets sick.” This can keep you from possibly exposing others to disease, or standing in lines and getting exposed yourself.
Having supplies and a plan go hand in hand when it comes to emergency preparedness, experts say. So as you stock up on goods, make sure you put a plan in place to monitor the spread of the coronavirus in your community and neighborhood and to guide you if you get sick. Besides keeping up to date on local news and national updates, like from the CDC, stay in touch with neighbors and friends nearby in ways that don’t require physical contact, like phone and email.
Have contact numbers handy not only for your primary care doctor, any specialists you or a family member may be seeing and the pharmacy. Consider arranging for delivery of prescriptions if needed or as convenient (if you don't already have medications delivered). And of course, don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you’re sick. Do not simply show up at a hospital or doctor's office.
“When we discuss family emergency plans specifically for COVID-19, we ask that families plan for family members, including pets, to be taken care of if they get sick or self-quarantined,” Gentry says. For example, how will your dog get walked if all family members are quarantined, or do you have a pet sitter the dog can go to? He adds that this should include coming up with a way to check in on extended family members and children who do not live at home. For example, through social media, Skype, Facetime and Zoom .
Similarly, you can share information with neighbors online, like through a group email list or neighborhood Facebook page or group.
“We should not simply lock our doors and fend for ourselves,” Gentry emphasizes. “And finally, the plan should discuss changes in school and work schedules and what that means to family schedules. Learning from home and working from home are two good strategies to be discussing now, in case they are implemented as we progress through this event.”
At present, the CDC doesn’t recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses – and that includes the coronavirus. Rather you should only wear a mask if a health provider recommends doing so. This should be done by people with COVID-19 who have symptoms to prevent others from getting infected, according to the CDC.
“Face masks are not recommended at this time, and using them may actually increase your risk of infection due to contamination of the outside of the mask, and a false sense of security,” Mushatt says. Experts add that despite a run on latex gloves in retail stores, these aren't advised as a precautionary measure for the general public, and wearing gloves hasn't been shown to protect against the coronavirus.
Better to take steps to control disease spread that are also advised to protect against other viral threats, including the seasonal flu virus. Those steps include washing hands with soap and water (or hand sanitizer) frequently, Mushatt advises, along with “social distancing,” or putting some space between yourself and others, not touching your face, coughing into a sleeve or tissue and staying at home if you’re sick.