Marilyn Stebbins, PharmD, fell ill at the end of February 2020. Initially diagnosed with multifocal pneumonia and treated with antibiotics, she later developed severe gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue, and shortness of breath. She was hospitalized in early March and was diagnosed with COVID-19.
It was still early in the pandemic, and testing was not available for her husband. After she was discharged, her husband isolated himself as much as possible. But that limited the amount of care he could offer.
“When I came home after 8 days in the ICU, I felt completely alone and terrified of not being able to care for myself and not knowing how much care my husband could provide,” said Dr. Stebbins, professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco.
“I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I had been home alone without my husband in the house,” she said. “I think about the people who died at home and understand how that might happen.”
Dr. Stebbins is one of tens of thousands of people who, whether hospitalized and discharged or never admitted for inpatient care, needed to find ways to convalesce at home. Data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services show that, of 326,674 beneficiaries who tested positive for COVID-19 between May 16 and June 11, 2020, 109,607 were hospitalized, suggesting that two-thirds were outpatients.
Most attention has focused on the sickest patients, leaving less severe cases to fall through the cracks. Despite fever, cough, difficulty breathing, and a surfeit of other symptoms, there are few available resources and all too little support to help patients navigate the physical and emotional struggles of contending with COVID-19 at home.
No ‘cookie-cutter’ approach
The speed with which the pandemic progressed caught public health systems off guard, but now, “it is essential to put into place the infrastructure to care for the physical and mental health needs of patients at home because most are in the community and many, if not most, still aren’t receiving sufficient support at home,” said Dr. Stebbins.
said Gary LeRoy, MD, a family physician in Dayton, Ohio. He emphasized that there is “no cookie-cutter formula” for home care, because every patient’s situation is different.
“I begin by having a detailed conversation with each patient to ascertain whether their home environment is safe and to paint a picture of their circumstances,” Dr. LeRoy, who is the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said in an interview.
Dr. LeRoy suggested questions that constitute “not just a ‘medical’ checklist but a ‘whole life’ checklist.”
- Do you have access to food, water, medications, sanitation/cleaning supplies, a thermometer, and other necessities? If not, who might assist in providing those?
- Do you need help with activities of daily living and self-care?
- Who else lives in your household? Do they have signs and symptoms of the virus? Have they been tested?
- Do you have enough physical space between you and other household members?
- Do you have children? How are they being cared for?
- What type of work do you do? What are the implications for your employment if you are unable to work for an extended period?
- Do you have an emotional, social, and spiritual support system (e.g., family, friends, community, church)?
- Do you have concerns I haven’t mentioned?
Patients’ responses will inform the management plan and determine what medical and social resources are needed, he said.
Dr. Stebbins said the nurse case manager from her insurance company called her daily after she came home from the hospital. She was told that a public health nurse would also call, but no one from the health department called for days – a situation she hopes has improved.
One way or another, she said, “health care providers [or their staff] should check in with patients daily, either telephonically or via video.” She noted that video is superior, because “someone who isn’t a family member needs to put eyes on a patient and might be able to detect warning signs that a family member without healthcare training might not notice.”
Dr. LeRoy, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, said that, given his time constraints, a nurse or medical assistant in his practice conducts the daily check-ins and notifies him if the patient has fever or other symptoms.
“Under ordinary circumstances, when a patient comes to see me for some type of medical condition, I get to meet the patient, consider what might be going on, then order a test, wait for the results, and suggest a treatment plan. But these are anything but ordinary circumstances,” said Matthew Exline, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus.
“That traditional structure broke down with COVID-19, when we may have test results without even seeing the patient. And without this interaction, it is harder to know as a physician what course of action to take,” he said in an interview.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the physician has at least some data to help guide next steps, even if there has been no prior meeting with the patient.
For example, a positive test raises a host of issues, not the least of which is the risk of spreading the infection to other household members and questions about whether to go the hospital. Moreover, for patients, positive tests can have serious ramifications.
“Severe shortness of breath at rest is not typical of the flu, nor is loss of taste or smell,” said Dr. Exline. Practitioners must educate patients and families about specific symptoms of COVID-19, including shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, and gastrointestinal or neurologic symptoms, and when to seek emergency care.
Dr. LeRoy suggests buying a pulse oximeter to gauge blood oxygen levels and pulse rate. Together with a thermometer, a portable blood pressure monitor, and, if indicated, a blood glucose monitor, these devices provide a comprehensive and accurate assessment of vital signs.
Dr. LeRoy also educates patients and their families about when to seek medical attention.
Dr. Stebbins takes a similar approach. “Family members are part of, not apart from, the care of patients with COVID-19, and it’s our responsibility as healthcare providers to consider them in the patient’s care plan.”
Keeping family safe
Beyond care, family members need a plan to keep themselves healthy, too.
“A patient with COVID-19 at home should self-quarantine as much as possible to keep other family members safe, if they continue to live in the same house,” Dr. Exline said.
Ideally, uninfected family members should stay with relatives or friends. When that’s not possible, everyone in the household should wear a mask, be vigilant about hand washing, and wipe down all surfaces – including doorknobs, light switches, faucet handles, cellphones, and utensils – regularly with bleach or an alcohol solution.
Caregivers should also minimize the amount of time they are exposed to the patient.
“Set food, water, and medication on the night table and leave the room rather than spending hours at the bedside, since limiting exposure to viral load reduces the chances of contagion,” said Dr. Exline.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance for household members caring for COVID-19 patients at home. It provides tips on how to help patients follow the doctor’s instructions and ways to ensure adequate hydration and rest, among others.
Patients with COVID-19 who live alone face more formidable challenges.
Dr. LeRoy says physicians can help patients by educating themselves about available social services in their community so they can provide appropriate referrals and connections. Such initiatives can include meal programs, friendly visit and financial assistance programs, as well as childcare and home health agencies.
Comfort and support
Patients with COVID-19 need to be as comfortable and as supported as possible, both physically and emotionally.
“While I was sick, my dogs curled up next to me and didn’t leave my side, and they were my saving grace. There’s not enough to be said about emotional support,” Dr. Stebbins said.
Although important, emotional support is not enough. For patients with respiratory disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, heart failure, or pneumonia, their subjective symptoms of shortness of breath, air hunger, or cough may improve with supplemental oxygen at home. Other measures include repositioning of the patient to lessen the body weight over the lungs or the use of lung percussion, Leroy said.
He added that improvement may also come from drainage of sputum from the airway passages, the use of agents to liquefy thick sputum (mucolytics), or aerosolized bronchodilator medications.
However, Dr. LeRoy cautioned, “one remedy does not work for everyone – an individual can improve gradually by using these home support interventions, or their respiratory status can deteriorate rapidly despite all these interventions.”
For this reason, he says patients should consult their personal physician to determine which, if any, of these home treatments would be best for their particular situation.
Patients who need emotional support, psychotherapy, or psychotropic medications may find teletherapy helpful. Guidance for psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers regarding the treatment of COVID-19 patients via teletherapy can be found on the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers websites.
Pharmacists can also help ensure patient safety, Dr. Stebbins said.
If a patient has not picked up their usual medications, Dr. Stebbins said, “they may need a check-in call. Some may be ill and alone and may need encouragement to seek medical attention, and some may have no means of getting to the pharmacy and may need medications delivered.”
A home healthcare agency may also be helpful for homebound patients. David Bersson, director of operations at Synergy Home Care of Bergen County, N.J., has arranged in-home caregivers for patients with COVID-19.
The amount of care that professional caregivers provide can range from several hours per week to full-time, depending on the patient’s needs and budget, and can include companionship, Mr. Bersson said in an interview.
Because patient and caregiver safety are paramount, caregivers are thoroughly trained in protection and decontamination procedures and are regularly tested for COVID-19 prior to being sent into a client’s home.
Health insurance companies do not cover this service, Mr. Bersson noted, but the VetAssist program covers home care for veterans and their spouses who meet income requirements.
Caregiving and companionship are both vital pieces of the at-home care puzzle. “It was the virtual emotional support I got from friends, family, coworkers, and healthcare professionals that meant so much to me, and I know they played an important part in my recovery,” Dr. Stebbins said.
Dr. LeRoy agreed, noting that he calls patients, even if they only have mild symptoms and his nurse has already spoken to them. “The call doesn’t take much time – maybe just a 5-minute conversation – but it makes patients aware that I care.”
Dr. Stebbins, Dr. Exline, and Dr. LeRoy report no relevant financial relationships. Mr. Bersson is the director of operations at Synergy Home Care of Bergen County, New Jersey.
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