The cold & flu season is upon us, and our families are at risk. If we look at methods used by the CDC and other experts, it is clear that isolation (or quarantine as they call it) is one of the best ways to prevent flu infection. Before Junior brings home a bad cold or influenza from school, or Dad brings it home from the office, we need to find a way to avoid infecting the entire household. In the next few minutes you can learn how to prepare to avoid this contagion spreading to your household.
Isolating your home from contagion
The first step in protecting your family is the isolation of your household from pathogens (contagious microbes). This is essentially what health officials are attempting when they quarantine sick families, individuals or communities. The idea is simple – keep well people and sick people away from each other. This works just as well when they isolate the well as it does when they isolate the sick. Since we are avoiding epidemic disease spreading in our home, we will isolate the well.
Closing up your home is the first step in creating an isolated haven for your household to avoid disease. The most comprehensive way to do that includes ensuring that the house is sealed tightly to avoid entry of uncontrolled air flow that could carry insects, microbes or dust into the living space. While this provides powerful protection beyond that typically required by the CDC (outside of hospitals and treatment centers), it is not terribly difficult if you plan it in advance. We explain options for home air-flow control in our article on positive pressure ventilation. Whether you go to the extent of pressure sealing the structure or not, it is important to control the movement of people, insects, vermin, pets and materials into the space, as any of those could carry disease vectors into the household.
Dealing with incoming materials and people is step 2 in control of the isolated household. If we could have all groceries stocked in the home to get through flu season, and avoid the movement of people into the space, that would be ideal. Unfortunately, it is generally impractical except in cases of extreme, lethal pandemic outbreaks. The most comprehensive and powerful way to deal with the incoming materials, people and animals is a set of protocols for where and how to control the movement and decontamination of everyone and everything that enters the space.
Your protocols must be designed to work with your family, your life and your home, but to be effective they must allow essential people and materials to enter, but ensure that disease vectors are kept outside, isolated or destroyed. A good model for such protocols is a set of clean room protocols. In a clean room, everyone and everything that enters will often pass through an ante-room where people shed shoes and street clothes, clean themselves and gown-up in clean room garb before entry. Generally materials must similarly be inspected, washed (and/or air-washed) and disinfected before they can pass into the clean room. If a mud room or entry-way were used in the home, a similar protocol could require stripping outer wear, shoes or even pants before entering further, and sanitizing groceries or other materials there before entry to the living space. To be REALLY thorough, you may consider removing and discarding bags and outer packaging materials in the mud-room (or other designated entry control zone) and leaving them in trash cans there that never enter the rest of the home. Leaving shoes at the entry point is a no-brainer; in much of the world, that’s standard for homes and offices.
Since touching is the most common way of passing an infectious agent, contact isolation is an important strategy. Along with shoes, hand washing and cleaning of anything else at risk of contact contamination is a good strategy. When someone sits on a public bus seat, or brushes against other riders on a train, the pants or outer wear are likely to carry microbial passengers from that contact. Leaving those likely contaminated garments at the entry point may be a viable way to mitigate that risk.
How about contagion at work, school or shopping?
If someone in the family leaves your well-isolated home, you need a strategy for when they are outside the clean, isolated space, and when they return. No matter how thoroughly you clean them when they return, you won’t be able to fully isolate microbes that are in their lungs, sinuses, gut or blood. For that reason there is a need for a 3 part strategy to combat transport of flu or other pathogens in those returning to the home:
1. Arm the bodily defenses: Everyone in the family, especially those who will leave home and return, should establish and maintain a healthy immune system. This requires good nutrition, drinking lots of clean water, and getting any high quality immunizations that are available and proven effective.
2. Use mobile isolation: Avoiding contact with people and surfaces they touch, frequent hand cleaning and use of a mask or other barrier technology when you must be close to airborne microbes are basic isolation technologies you can take along on your journeys. Take care to make use of hand sanitizers, but understand their limitations; they work well on bacterial pathogens, but there are cold and flu viruses that are not phased by these alcohol-based treatments. Glove use and hand washing are the most comprehensive approaches to avoid viral infection.
3. Divide and conquer: When a traveler does return infected, quarantine them from the rest of the household. This may seem harsh, but you do them no favors by infecting all those who can look after them while they get better. If your home has multiple rooms, it makes sense to restrict a family member to part of that space, and keep that part isolated from the rest. While shared spaces like a common bathroom and shared systems like the furnace or central air require extra effort, isolation is still possible with some work, but it is not easy. For this to work, you must define rules and processes that support your local isolation quarantine. Strict adherence to these isolation protocols is essential when an infected person is in your home.
Clearly, life is easier and isolation is more comprehensive if people stay home, and shopping happens online or by phone. Of course, working from home, homeschooling and virtual social lives are not for everyone. If you can focus on care and attention to infection risk whenever anyone does go out, the chances of avoiding flu or other disease can be drastically reduced.
But what about pets?
Generally dogs and cats are pretty safe, in that they share relatively few common pathogens with humans. Fleas and ticks are another matter, though, as they are proven disease vectors, although not typically carrying influenza. It is probably a good policy to keep pets close to home, in a fenced yard, or indoors, especially during serious disease outbreaks, but it still is important to practice flea & tick control and to keep the home clear of mice and rats, as they WILL bring fleas into the home to potentially spread disease.
It is worth considering the fact that the famous Black Death pandemic that killed tens of millions in the mid 1300s, was spread by infected fleas. We still are not certain how new outbreaks of Ebola are spread to the population, but many believe that it is carried by mammals like bats or monkeys. I plan to keep pet-contagion risks in mind if preparation to deal with the next pandemic become imminent.
The Bottom Line
While a highly effective vaccine could offer a simple solution that is practical and flexible, few vaccines are 100% effective, and when it comes to flu, often the vaccines reduce risk by less than 50%. If that isn’t enough, or if you are concerned enough about other communicable threats, other actions make sense. There is one strategy that works with nearly all disease threats and is very effective, and that is isolation. If you live in North America, or in many other places, amazon and other on-line shopping resources can make home delivery a viable option so that household isolation can be practical. Even medical care can be accessed at home, as we mention in this article.
Isolation is a powerful, but challenging choice, as it demands a lot of the family, and it can be very restrictive. If isolation is a response to a pandemic disaster, and is a temporary strategy for survival, it may be easier to handle. We offer tips for dealing with it as a survival strategy in our post Plan for family survival in a disaster. Whether you choose to use a comprehensive isolation approach, family immunization or some other strategy, I hope this post helps you to decide and prepare.
In any case, please share your thoughts, questions or experiences with us below. We’d love to hear what you think!