As state and local health officials brace for a potential spike in COVID-19 infections after Thanksgiving, one local expert advised people to assume symptoms are the result of COVID-19 until proven otherwise, instead of the other way around.
“We see a lot of patients who, psychologically, want to convince themselves of ‘this is allergies or this is the flu or just a cold,'" said Dr. Shoeb Sitafalwalla, chief medical officer at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.
"I think it's best to take the attitude that it is COVID-19 until proven otherwise, and if you take that mindset, then the next step is to make sure you get tested."
People can experience different symptoms at different times and of varying intensity.
Symptoms may include a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or a runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
With infection rates as high as they are across the region right now, Sitafalwalla said it is important people are not dismissive if they are experiencing any symptoms consistent with the virus.
“We hope that cases don't spike in the coming weeks, but we wouldn't be surprised and, to a certain extent, expect our cases to spike," Sitafalwalla said.
"Just think about what we do during the holidays. You enter the door, you're hugging and kissing people you haven't seen in a while ... and those particles spread, and so often the natural consequence of that is diseases coming back to your home, back to the town that you're from.”
McHenry County health officials have acknowledged that the local contact tracing system is not as strong as it could be, meaning they are not able to contact everyone who has contracted the virus to inform them about what may come next.
Once someone has received a positive test result, it is crucial to be transparent in informing everyone he or she has been in contact with that they may have been exposed, Sitafalwalla said.
In general, one of the best ways to manage COVID-19 symptoms is to "exercise good self-care," get rest and drink a lot of fluids, Sitafalwalla said.
“Stay hydrated, keep the energy up, make sure you don’t stay in bed for 14 days,” he said. “You can walk around your room or walk around your isolated area to keep your strength up to prevent any risk of any other complications.”
For those with conditions that make them more susceptible to complications associated with COVID-19, Sitafalwalla said they should contact their primary care provider right away to get more specific information on how to care for themselves and what to look out for.
An important thing to understand when recovering at home, Mundozie said, is the difference between quarantine and isolation.
A person should be in quarantine, meaning they are staying home and not seeing people outside of their household, when they think they have been exposed and are waiting for a test result.
Isolation, on the other hand, should take place when a person knows he or she has been infected with the virus, Mundozie said. When in isolation, a person should remain confined to his or her own room and his or her own bathroom if possible.
Other family members or roommates should try to avoid contracting the virus by cleaning surfaces and washing their hands often, especially if sharing a bathroom or other areas with an infected person, Mundozie said.
He encouraged caretakers of COVID-19-positive people to leave food and other necessary items outside of their door to be picked up, and to keep things such as laundry, dishes and trash separate from those of the rest of the household.
As another method of preventing an infection from spreading within a household, air purifiers also can be effective at pulling virus particles out of the air, Mundozie said. This also is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its tips for disinfecting the home.
Caretakers should check in on their loved ones to monitor the progression of their symptoms in a safe, socially distant manner, Sitafalwalla said. This is important, as it often is difficult for someone to tell whether their infection is getting worse on their own.
Check-ins and social interaction also can be good for a person's mental health when recovering from COVID-19. Sitafalwalla recommended using FaceTime or Zoom to do this safely.
For those who may not have a caretaker but are not sick enough to be hospitalized, Sitafalwalla recommended reaching out to a primary care provider to see what kinds of services might be available. Some patients with Advocate Health Care may be eligible to receive regular check-ins from a clinician in person or over the phone.
There are certain warning signs that the infection is becoming serious, and those warning signs should not be ignored, Mundozie said.
“The symptoms that they really need to monitor closely to decide whether they should go to the hospital or not is the chest pains, the shortness of breath and any confusion, or the lips or hands turning blue, meaning lack of oxygenation,” Mundozie said.
Confusion also can be paired with a heightened level of fatigue, meaning someone is sleeping all day and is not able to stay awake, which can be a sign that hospital treatment is needed, Sitafalwalla said.
One of the easiest ways to monitor the severity of a COVID-19 infection is to buy a pulse oximeter to read oxygenation levels, Mundozie said. These can be bought at any local pharmacy.
A healthy person has an oxygenation level of 97 or 98. If someone's oxygenation level is below 94, it is a sign that they are not getting enough oxygen flow, and they should seek hospital care right away, Mundozie said.
When an infection becomes serious, it is important to call the hospital ahead of time, if possible, to make staff aware that someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is coming. This will allow the hospital to make any special accommodations necessary to ensure the safety of other patients and hospital staff.