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Medical professionals in N.Y.C. share how they try to avoid bringing coronavirus home

“Everything the person touches, clean up after yourself. It could be as small as flushing the toilet, you touch that knob to flush it, clean it up ,” one paramedic said.
Image: Healthcare worker in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York
A health care worker outside the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 2, 2020.Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters

Medical experts and governments are urging the public to engage in social distancing as a critical tool in the fight against the coronavirus. But in the nation's epicenter of New York City, where many families live together in small spaces and it is common to have roommates because people can’t afford to live alone, how can you keep yourself and your loved ones safe?

Medical professionals on the front lines of treating coronavirus patients in the city shared hygiene and safety measures they use as they return home knowing they’ve been exposed to the virus.

A resident who works at public hospitals in Brooklyn described living at home with a fiancé who was also a health care worker dealing with coronavirus patients.

“We both have our risk of exposure,” the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

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The resident said they remove their scrubs as soon they get home and put them in a trash bag, and suggested anyone who has to leave their home leave their shoes outside the door, change out of your clothes and sanitize the home's doorknobs whenever possible.

When returning from errands or with groceries, the resident said they wipe down every single item with disinfecting wipes, wearing gloves, which they then dispose of.

While not everyone will have access to protective supplies such as gloves or masks, the resident urged the importance of frequent hand-washing.

It was also important to sanitize personal items, such as cellphones, as well as any doorknobs or counters in shared spaces when possible, they said.

To limit exposure, the resident and their partner have also slept in separate rooms for the last few weeks.

“It’s very hard because you're already social distancing -- at home, imagine social isolating,” they said.

The resident said if someone in the home has mild symptoms, but who are not short of breath, they should isolate themselves in a separate area of the house or apartment and wear a mask whenever possible.

Anyone who believes they were exposed to someone with the coronavirus should also wear a mask and self-isolate even without symptoms, as people could be carrying the virus and be asymptomatic, they said.

“Still isolate and wear a mask,” they said.

Another Brooklyn resident said as soon as they get home, they take off their clothes, put them in a bag and put them into the washing machine and then take a shower.

For those living in a house with an elderly or a vulnerable person who requires physical assistance, the resident said the ideal situation would be having one or two people designated for that person's care, “to be sure that person doesn't have any contact with any other people who might be at risk.”

“The best way is to limit, try to be as protective of the both parties, the helpers, the aides as well as the patients themselves,” the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. They added if someone did need to physically interact with the vulnerable person to make sure they were wearing gloves, masks or whatever protective gear was available.

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended taking everyday preventative measures against coronavirus exposure such as: frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your face, staying home when you are sick with milder symptoms, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then immediately throwing that tissue in the garbage, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The agency said people should prepare for possible illness and choose a room or a space in the house where anyone who is ill or potentially ill could be separated from the others.

If someone in the home does get sick, the CDC recommended having the person stay in a separate room away from people as much as possible. In homes with multiple bathrooms, the CDC recommended having the sick person use a separate bathroom from nonsick members of the house.

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The CDC also said to avoid sharing personal household items and that laundry should be washed thoroughly with soiled items handled with gloves when available.

Those believed to be sick should wear masks whenever possible and people should avoid having unnecessary visitors to their homes, the CDC said.

A Bronx paramedic who works with suspected and confirmed coronavirus patients said they fear passing the disease to their son, who has an underlying brain condition.

For those who need to leave the home, the paramedic also recommended using disinfectant sprays or wipes on doorknobs and things like car handles and to clean after yourself as much as you can.

“Everything the person touches, clean up after yourself. It could be as small as flushing the toilet, you touch that knob to flush it, clean it up ,” the paramedic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

The paramedic also suggested when multiple people live in a home to try and talk and interact from a distance. For those needing to physically assist vulnerable family members, the paramedic recommended always wearing a mask and gloves and practice frequent hand-washing whenever possible.

The paramedic said after their shift, they isolate themselves in their room to avoid possible contamination with their son.

“The best thing to do is basically staying far away,” the paramedic said. “We FaceTime each other when we have something to say and we’re in the same house.”