EVESHAM TOWNSHIP, NJ — It’s the time of year when college students and graduates come home for the summer, but this year, families have to be on the lookout for the coronavirus, Virtua Health officials warn.
Moreover, even after the initial risk has passed, families may struggle to keep everyone healthy and happy for the long haul — especially as states start to re-open. Dr. James Sekel, lead physician at Virtua Primary Care — Washington Township, offers tips for families in these situations. In fact, the father of two has personally faced this issue when his older son came home from college.
“The biggest challenge was early on. The beginning was very stressful,” said Sekel, whose 20-year-old returned to Washington Township from Virginia Tech in March.
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Over the past few months, the family — including Sekel’s wife and 17-year-old son — has learned to cope with both health precautions and the emotional fallout from the pandemic. Sekel offers the following advice for families of returning students or any new household member:
The trip home
Before and while traveling, limit contact with others as much as possible. When you must be around others — such as when you stop for gas or to pick up a meal — wear a cloth mask over your nose and mouth, and remain at least 6 feet away from people whenever possible.
Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching high-contact surfaces such as door handles, gas pump handles, and credit-card machines.
Bring disinfecting wipes to clean surfaces you cannot avoid, such as high-touch parts of a rental car or your airplane seat and tray.
Avoid touching your face at all times.
For more information, see the CDC’s Travel Considerations.
The first two weeks after arrival
The returning person should remain separate (isolated) from other household members for 14 days. That’s because the incubation period — the time between exposure to the virus and the start of symptoms — lasts up to 14 days. Those who have been exposed but do not yet show symptoms can still pass the virus to others.
“Don’t hang out together in the same room, and have the person wear a cloth mask over their nose and mouth when they are in shared areas of the home,” Sekel said.
Others should wear masks in these areas as well.
However, masks don’t provide complete protection from the virus “because a lot of air still comes in around the edges of the mask,” Sekel said.
If possible, avoid having the isolated person share a bathroom, as it can be easier to catch the virus in such a confined (and germy) area. If the isolated person must share a bathroom with others, the other family members should delay using the room immediately after the isolated person, ideally waiting two or three hours, and should also wear a mask.
If others share a bathroom with the isolated person, they should all use a separate tote to keep their toothbrush and other personal items off the countertop.
Plus, keep a container of disinfecting wipes and disposable gloves in the bathroom. Ask the returning household member to use the gloves and wipes to clean surfaces before leaving the bathroom, including the sink, countertop, and door handles.
Other household members should not go in the person’s room. If the person must share a bedroom, place beds at least 6 feet apart, if possible, and sleep head to toe. You can also separate beds with a physical barrier, such as a room divider, shower curtain, large quilt, or even a big piece of cardboard.
If the person has or develops any symptoms of COVID-19, they should contact their health care provider for additional instructions. In most cases, the person will need to isolate themselves for another 14 days after the start of symptoms.
Coronavirus testing is now available in South Jersey and other areas, even for people without symptoms. Locally, certain Rite Aid stores offer free testing for those who are symptom-free.
Consider having the returning student tested for coronavirus once he or she arrives home.
“This could shorten the 14-day isolation period,” Sekel said.
In other words, if the student’s test result is negative — indicating no coronavirus infection — their family may feel comfortable ending the isolation period early. However, a negative test result does not guarantee a person is uninfected, as no test is 100% accurate.
And if the test comes back positive for coronavirus, the family should continue isolating the person.
Sekel cautions against the coronavirus antibody test, which checks for evidence of a past COVID-19 infection. “The antibody test is not reliable enough,” Sekel said.
A long-term stay
After the isolation period, if no household member shows coronavirus symptoms, families can resume close contact with each other and stop wearing masks at home when no other visitors are present.
Nevertheless, it’s still important for everyone to limit their risk of contracting COVID-19 — and passing it to other household members.
People who live in households with those who are at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 should act as though they, too, are at high risk. These individuals include people age 65 and older, and those of any age with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.
The Sekels, for instance, are extra cautious regarding their sons’ elderly grandparents, and have only visited them outdoors from 15 feet away.
In general, Sekel advises everyone to:
Limit errands to those that are essential, such as grocery shopping and medical appointments.
Wear a mask when doing such activities.
Wipe down shopping carts with disinfecting wipes.
Wash your hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer before heading home and after you enter your house.
Returning to outside activities
In New Jersey, outdoor venues are beginning to reopen, including parks, golf courses, and outside restaurant dining.
“It’s not necessary to wear a mask outdoors, as long as you stay at least six feet away from other people,” Sekel said.
In fact, his older son has already golfed under this rule with a friend. And Sekel and his wife recently hosted another couple for a backyard barbecue.
“We sat on one side of the fire pit and our friends sat on the other side, about 10 feet apart.”
Protecting families’ mental health
Families should also consider emotional well-being when deciding on precautions, Sekel said.
“A lot of teens are getting depressed,” Sekel said. “Their whole social life has been taken away.”
Therefore, parents may want to allow young adults to socialize periodically — as long as they follow social-distancing rules and, preferably, remain outdoors.
“And make sure they wear their mask over both their nose and mouth, or it won’t be effective,” Sekel said.
He advises parents to watch for signs of depression, noting that young people are more likely to harm themselves than older individuals are.
At the same time, “you have to give young adults their space,” Sekel said. “Let them have their bad days. Not everyone is going to be happy and cheerful right now.”
And with so many health-related restrictions, he suggests that parents relax other rules when possible.
For the Sekels, the pandemic has brought more opportunities to spend time together as a family.
“We wouldn’t normally see our sons as much. We’ve had more conversations,” Sekel said. “I tell people to just try to stay positive and enjoy your family life.”