Any new illness is scary. But panicking doesn’t protect anyone from disease, practicing evidence-based medicine does. From stocking up on the right medicines to avoiding crowds, here’s what I’m doing for my family during the coronavirus outbreak.

By Joanna Loewenstein, M.D.
March 13, 2020
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I’m a mom of two kids who represent opposite ends of the spectrum of immunity. My 3-year-old has had every snot-inducing virus known to man. He’s like a Petri dish of germs collected at school and other public spaces (he has even licked a New York City subway floor). My 3-month old, on the other hand, has yet to have his first cold.

Yet as a mom and primary care physician, I know I still have to take proper precautions for the both of them—especially in the face of a new disease like COVID-19.

By this time in a typical year, I’d be fielding questions from patients about influenza and the common cold. But now the most common questions revolve around COVID-19.

As a mom and physician, I have been planning for a realistic, worst-case scenario. Here’s what I’ve been focused on.

Practicing Preventative Health Care

Everyone should do basic things to ensure you remain your healthiest self. One of the most important ones this year is ensure you have your flu shot. It’s not too late.

In China, we saw that patients who were co-infected with flu and COVID-19 were sicker than those with just COVID-19.

The other reason to get the flu vaccine is that it decreases the chances of flu. If you are less likely to get the flu, and we can keep the number of flu cases down, then we save hospital beds for patients critically ill with COVID-19.

Enforcing Common-Sense Hygiene

A good way to prevent any infection is to wash your hands frequently. Not a quick dip under the water! Everyone in your household should be washing their hands—including, and most especially, your children.

Wash your hands like you just changed the poopiest diaper right before you need to swap your contact lenses: Soap the entire surface of both of your hands (palm, fingers, and wrist), scrub them for at least 20 seconds (getting through at least three stanzas of “Baby Shark”), and then rinse with warm water.

Repeat every time you enter your house, leave the subway or any other method of mass transit, and even after shaking hands with others. I have to take the subway to work, so I make sure to wash my hands as soon as I get to work and try not to touch my face. (It’s also a good idea to clean your home regularly by wiping down surfaces with disinfectants!)

Making an Emergency Plan

As COVID-19 has spread through countries like China, we’ve seen the use of quarantine to contain the disease. As COVID-19 spreads throughout the U.S., health officials are asking more and more people to quarantine themselves at home in order to try to stop the spread of the virus.

So, for one, I’ve tried to prepare for a quarantine. That means buying supplies, exploring work-from-home options, and planning activities with the kids to ensure they remain healthy and happy if they have to stay home—locked indoors—for many days at a time.

Keep in mind: Parents should have a living will and a health care proxy in place. The latter is so your loved ones understand your wishes if your health deteriorates to the point where others need to make health decisions on your behalf.

Gathering Basic Supplies

As for supplies I mentioned, I gathered three types: medicine, food, and sanitary.

On the medicine front, I bought a bottle of ibuprofen, a bottle of acetaminophen, and the children’s equivalents. (I’ve made sure to know my children’s doses for acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Your pediatrician should recommend the appropriate dosages.) If you take prescription medicines and can get a 90-day supply, it’s not a bad idea. If there are medicines you’ve had to use occasionally when you’re sick, like inhalers for mild asthma, check to make sure they aren’t expired.

For food, I stocked up on non-perishables that I know my family will eat. There are some picky eaters at home, so I didn’t buy a year’s supply of spicy kale chips. Instead, I focused on basics: pasta, tomato sauce, almond milk, rice, beans, tuna. New York City’s tap water is potable, and we drink straight from the tap at home. But, just in case, we got a few gallons of bottled water, although it is extremely unlikely that the water supply will be affected in any way by this virus.

For sanitary supplies, I made sure we have two weeks’ worth of toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste, laundry detergent, disinfectants for the various surfaces at home, and diapers.

Planning for Child Care

A couple of weeks ago I got sick with the flu and could not get out of bed. I had to call upon my husband, family, and friends for support. My mother was luckily able to help with child care, for example.

The same thing could happen with COVID-19. I’ve been identifying people in my inner circle to be on call, if either my husband or I contract COVID-19. If I get sick, I plan to isolate myself in my bedroom and wear a mask and gloves at home.

Keeping My Distance

I’m taking precautions to make sure others don’t get sick, too. For one, I’m distancing myself from people when I walk on the street. I wear a face mask in my office.

In addition, I’m limiting my children’s activities to those that occur in open places, rather than confined areas. I’m avoiding crowded places, shopping online for groceries and household necessities, and trying to limit plans outside of the home.

I’m closely reading announcements from my and my husband’s employers, and my older son’s school, about what they’re doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I’m also planning ahead on how to isolate one or more of my family members from the others at our home, should one of us get sick.

Identifying Good Sources of Information

Finally, there’s a lot of misinformation swirling around about COVID-19. Staying informed is an important way of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

I’ve been consulting the more trustworthy sources to ensure I know where transmissions have been happening, the rate of transmission, and what authorities have or have not been doing to stamp out the virus. The point is to learn all the latest information to adjust my perception of the real risk posed by the virus and take appropriate precautionary measures.

Some of the sources I turn to include the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and, because I’m in New York City, the New York Department of Health. You can check your local department of health, too.

It’s easy to panic since there are many unknowns. But we do know a few things:

  • COVID-19 is part of a family of viruses called “coronavirus” that typically cause mild cold symptoms. It’s called “coronavirus” because under an electron microscope, the virus looks like it has a crown. Crown, in Latin, is “corona.” Hence, the name coronavirus.
  • COVID-19 probably mutated from a regular old coronavirus.
  • There have been more than 100,000 people infected worldwide since the virus was discovered in China. Most of those infected have had mild symptoms and recovered—like when someone gets influenza.
  • So far, there appear to be no reported cases of children under the age of 15 with severe symptoms or deaths from COVID-19.

Overall, the 2019 novel coronavirus continues to pose a real threat to people around the world. As parents, we need to be prepared. Taking some easy steps should greatly help your family.

Joanna E. Loewenstein, M.D., is a board certified internist. She is a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. She attended New York University School of Medicine, where she also did her primary care/internal medicine residency. She graduated in art history and chemistry, magna cum laude, from Columbia University. Dr. Loewenstein and her husband are proud parents of two children. Visit her online profile.

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