My loved ones are at high risk for coronavirus. Time to make some plans.

Yesterday, our health department recommended actions to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), with particular guidance to help protect people who are at higher risk for severe illness. This includes people who are sixty and over and those who have underlying health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and weakened immune systems. It’s unclear the risk for pregnant people at this time, but they may also may be more susceptible.

If you aren’t someone who falls into one of these categories, then you certainly have people in your life who do. And now’s the time to start talking with them about how to best decrease the risk for coronavirus–or if you’re in this group, to make a plan.

What does planning involve?

I take inspiration from one of my closest friends who is a kidney transplant recipient. When she first started following the news about the novel coronavirus, she talked with her medical specialists about her risk. She found out her risk is quite high, especially because her immunity is suppressed. Her doctor advised her on how to recognize symptoms specific to her condition, which in her case may not include fever. They also discussed how to communicate that to other healthcare providers if necessary who do not have experience with kidney transplant recipients.

One of our health department’s recommendations is for people who are at high risk for COVID-19 to stay home as much as possible. My friend found additional guidance from the National Kidney Foundation on what people with her condition should do to avoid crowded places and tips on stocking up on kidney-friendly, nonperishable foods to avoid frequent trips to the grocery store. She’s talking with her employer about telecommuting possibilities and how her work can be done remotely.

My friend feels fortunate that she has the option to telecommute, and we know that not everyone has that option. We’re encouraging employers to be as flexible as possible about sick leave to allow highly vulnerable people to stay at home.

A personal dilemma

My parents are in their mid-seventies and my dad has diabetes and a history of heart disease. This week my mom is to receive a lifetime achievement award from a professional society and I am enormously proud of her. But receiving the award in person would require her to be in a large conference setting with hundreds of people where I’m sure she would receive hugs from many friends and colleagues. She asked me if she should go, and I was so torn, knowing how special this is for her.

We discussed the pros and cons, and she mentioned how often she catches a cold after going to this annual meeting. My mom is pretty healthy, but we were more concerned about the possibility of her getting exposed to coronavirus and then infecting my dad. Even though it’s not likely, the consequences could be terrible. In the end, my mom will make a video of her acceptance speech to send to the conference. And you’d better believe we will throw a heck of a party for her when coronavirus is no longer a threat.

Postponing when we can

Another big gathering for my family is scheduled in a couple weeks, with a celebration of life for a beloved great-aunt who passed away a month ago. Public Health recommends postponing large gatherings whenever possible to miminize the potential spread of coronavirus. We’re having conversations about whether we can postpone the larger celebration of life and in the meantime, considering other ways to commemorate my great-aunt, like having a small family dinner or sharing memories and photos online. We’re still talking about what we’ll do, keeping in mind that Public Health has issued recommendations and not mandates.

Life may be different for a while

It’s been emotional talking about cancelling or postponing significant events, but my family needs to have these conversations. Now is the time when it could make a difference in the spread of coronavirus if we all take these actions.

I’m heartened to see all the things people are already doing to prevent the spread. It’s amazing to be on the bus with no one coughing because sick people are staying home. Organizations are making tough but necessary decisions to protect vulnerable people, like the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, who cancelled prayer services for 800 people. I’m elbow-bumping colleagues rather than shaking hands. But I’m still hugging my daughter because some limited close contact is still essential.

There’s no doubt that making these kinds of changes requires sacrifice that isn’t always easy to do. It can be inconvenient, disappointing, and involve expense. So I just think of my parents, my elderly relatives, and my dear friend and I have no question that it’s the right thing to do.

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Originally posted on March 5, 2020.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.