What I thought was a dry throat caused by staying in my grandparents’ 85-degree home over the holidays was covid-19. I tested positive in late December, after I got home, as the number of covid cases was rising toward record levels. My mother, teen sisters and grandparents tested positive around the same time, although all of us were vaccinated.
In addition to experiencing intense fatigue, body aches and congestion, I was very anxious about the rest of the family, although I tried to monitor them from afar. Other relatives commiserated with me and supplied me with information about serious symptoms I should be on the lookout for. (As it turned out, we all had mild cases.)
What I needed most while I was ill was emotional support, but every person who has the coronavirus is different. And it’s likely you know such a person, because the omicron variant continues to rage: Between Dec. 29. and Jan. 10, approximately 8.8 million workers reported being unable to go to their jobs because they either had covid or were taking care of someone who did.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help someone who is home with covid-19, here are some suggestions, based on my experience, and interviews with experts and other people who have had the virus.
Supply groceries and more. Groceries are a top priority, especially for those who do not live in areas with access to grocery-delivery services. Delivering take-out meals, whether personally or via a service such as Uber Eats, is also appreciated.
But another extremely helpful errand is a pharmacy run. Patients may need to have a prescription refilled, may be running low on or menstrual supplies, or might just appreciate a heating pad and some over-the-counter remedies.
Think about other items that can help patients feel better, such as homemade soup or soothing facial tissues. “I found a supply of clean pillows to be huge for me,” said Eli Sashihara, 29. He used them to prop himself up when he had particularly nasty congestion while isolating with his 27-year-old brother and roommate, Gabe, in New Hope, Penn. The triple-vaccinated siblings were hit hard by the virus — “I got basically every symptom that you hear about,” Eli said — and relied on support from their parents and older brother.
Help with chores. In addition to delivering groceries and supplies, you might offer to take on some chores. Consider volunteering to do a load of laundry; clean sheets and PJs can help a patient feel better. If someone with covid lives in a colder climate, you can shovel out their driveway or sidewalk or hire someone else to complete the task; in warmer areas, you can water outdoor plants. You could also collect mail and newspapers, or put out trash and recycling.
Care for non-infected members of the household. New Jersey residents Steve Sussman and Andrea Beloff Sussman, who are in their 50s, contracted covid-19 in December of 2020, but the young adults in the house were spared. “The thing that we appreciated the most was [our relatives’ and friends’] thoughtfulness when it came to our kids. Making sure that they had food, that they had things they needed,” Sussman said.
Child care and pet care are concerns for a lot of coronavirus-positive families. Nathan Sashihara, Gabe and Eli’s older brother, took care of their kittens, because they were worried the cats would contract the virus. If you are not up for an extended playdate or boarding situation, consider offering to walk a dog or talking a healthy child to a park to run off some energy.
Let them know you’re thinking of them. Three generations in the Subhani household in Union, N.J., got covid before they could be vaccinated last spring, leaving them feeling isolated. Mercedes Subhani, 22, who, along with her mother was caring for her grandparents while ill herself, said she appreciated it when her aunt sat in their back yard and talked to them on the phone. It felt as if her aunt was there in person — without being put at risk.
The family was also touched when relatives delivering groceries included something special. “We all love Ferrero Rocher, and my aunt and uncle knew that so they would get the essential groceries and just have that box on top,” Subhani said. “And those little things obviously make the difference.”
Sending TikToks, sharing memes, emailing and text messaging are short, sweet ways to let someone know they are in your thoughts. But don’t forget that tech-based communication doesn’t work for everyone, as James Lubben, professor emeritus at Boston College’s School of Social Work, points out. “Technology has helped enriched social ties among those who are capable of navigating that technology,” he said, but it’s tough for people who don’t have the resources or the training. In that case, he recommends going back to the basics, whether it’s phone calls or even letters. Cards can be appreciated by all ages.
Check in daily. Eric Goldberg, a family doctor at NYU Langone Health, said that every household should have a thermometer to track fever and a finger-based pulse oximeter to measure a person’s blood oxygen. If you know a covid patient who doesn’t have these items, it’s a good idea to supply them.
Then set up daily check-ins to determine whether intervention is needed. You want to find out how the patient is breathing; if their oxygenation levels continue to fall, or drop after small exertions; if their temperature is continuing to rise; or if they have a fever over 103 degrees for multiple days in a row.
“If they can’t finish a sentence without gasping for air or struggling for air, then that’s a sign that they’re not recovering according to plan,” Goldberg said.
When I was sick, I called my grandfather daily. His lifelong bronchial asthma and memory loss made it difficult to track his symptoms, so I would chit-chat with him and listen for coughing.
Keep spirits up. “One important thing family members can do is to assure their loved ones that feeling depressed or anxious during a time like this is totally normal and even expected,” said Brooke Smith, assistant professor of psychology at Western Michigan University. When people attempt to hide from these uncomfortable feelings, it “actually ends up increasing the feelings of depression and anxiety, and it makes it difficult to engage in meaningful activity,” she said.
She suggested talking about what is meaningful for your friends and relatives and brainstorming how, even in non-ideal circumstances, they can continue to pursue their values. “Let’s say someone values being a loving grandparent, but they can’t see their grandkids right now,” Smith said. “But maybe they could write letters, or maybe they could make a craft. There are a lot of ways that people can get creative to pursue their values.”
Fight boredom. When Eli Sashihara’s fever was raging, it was hard for him to look at a screen. If bingeing Netflix isn’t working for someone you know, drop off other activities. Puzzles, crafts, knitting supplies and books are good places to start.
Help clean. Weeks’ worth of dishes, laundry and general clutter pile up quickly. A common concern of those interviewed was the state of their homes after their illnesses; many had lingering symptoms that made it difficult to get back to household chores. “A big thing is just to help around the house,” Subhani said. “I know a lot of people want to do extravagant things, but sometimes the essential needs go an extremely long way.”
Be persistent. Finally, Sussman suggests asking your friends or loved ones to tell you one specific thing that you can do for them during this tough time. “A lot of people don’t want to burden their family or friends, and they say, ‘No, I’m okay, I got it, don’t worry,’ ” he said. “But push them a little.”