In March, on Friday the 13th—such an ominous-sounding and appropriate date—the coronavirus outbreak forced me to do something I never anticipated I’d have to do as an adult: move back home with mom.
For the six months before that day, I’d been touring 65 cities across the United States as part of a traveling Broadway show. Once we reached Galveston, TX, though, the tour was abruptly shuttered, because of concerns about COVID-19.
Since my own residence in New York City was starting to show signs of being the epicenter of the pandemic, my mother insisted that I buy a ticket to Baltimore and stay with her.
Yet the minute I got to her home, I started to show symptoms of COVID-19—including a fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, and an explosive headache.
Eventually, I lost my sense of smell, which was the final clue. Just to clinch the matter, I soon learned that someone else on my tour had tested positive.
I tried to get tested myself, but a shortage of tests throughout Maryland made this impossible, even though doctors said I “probably” had it, given my symptoms.
The only clarity and advice I received, however, from the Maryland State Department of Health and the several ER doctors I spoke with, was to “Stay home.” That was it.
At this juncture, everyone in the country was pretty much still trying to figure out what to do if you developed symptoms of COVID-19, but the one thing I did know was to try to stay away from my 70-something mom as much as possible, since contracting an infection posed a particularly serious risk to the elderly.
Our dilemma: Since my mom and I were sharing a house, how could we remain in quarantine apart from each other?
How to self-isolate when you share a house
When one person at home has the coronavirus (or any illness) and the others are not showing any symptoms, the CDC advises that the sick person go into “home isolation” or “self isolation.”
But what exactly does that mean? After researching what I should do, I learned that I’d have to stay in my own room, alone. I also designated one bathroom as mine; it was the only one I used, and I told my mom never to go in there.
The CDC also recommended that I clean my own room and bathroom, and frequently wash my sheets and clothes. Although that was tough to do while I was sick, I was happy to do it, if it meant my mom wouldn’t have to put her own health at risk.
I also learned that I should wipe down everything I touched with a disinfecting agent like Clorox wipes—several times a day if possible. Thankfully, at the onset of my illness, I had plenty of wipes, and wasn’t afraid to use them!
For example, after I drove my mom’s car to urgent care to rule out strep and flu (for which I tested negative), I immediately went home and cleaned the car with Clorox wipes. I’m talking door handles, gear shift, keys, mirrors, steering wheel, garage door opener—anything I’d touched.
Meanwhile, the CDC recommendation was that my mom should be the one to regularly clean the common areas.
Our “must disinfect” list included light switches, TV remote, phones, refrigerator door, and doorknobs. Even though I wasn’t touching these things, we were trying to take every precaution.
Masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer
During the few times I left my sick room, I also wore a mask—an N99 Grove mask I’d purchased in January, because of my constant travel. Only now, rather than protecting myself from whatever bug was going around the tour bus, I was trying to protect my mom from catching whatever I had.
I also started wearing rubber gloves when out in the common areas. I only had a couple of pairs, which I’d asked for on my way out of urgent care, so I started disinfecting them at night with hand sanitizer. I’d alternate the pair of gloves I wore every day.
I’ve now heard of doctors who are short of PPE reusing gloves that way—disinfecting and alternating—so I think I did something right there with my shortage of supplies.
My mom didn’t have any latex gloves, but she wore a brand-new pair of winter gloves inside the house. They weren’t sterile, but they did offer another barrier from my germs when she was cleaning common areas.
We also kept (highly valuable) bottles of Purell hand sanitizer in the kitchen and our separate bathrooms, and we washed our hands a lot, often while singing the words to a Beatles spoof we’d watched on YouTube called “I Gotta Wash My Hands!”
Additionally, I was so worried about spreading the coronavirus to my mom that I kept using the same fork, knife, spoon, mug, and drinking glass (washing between uses, of course).
That may have been overkill, but the CDC’s instructions were not to share utensils or glassware, and I was afraid that germs might remain on whatever I’d used, even after I washed them well.
Although we were regularly putting the sponge in the microwave to disinfect it, I didn’t want to touch it, for fear of leaving my germs there.
So my mom did most of the dishwashing from any meal prep, and I took my utensils and glassware upstairs to my “sick bathroom” and washed them myself in the sink there.
Keeping your distance in a shared space
My mother and I did share some meals together, although we sat far, far away from each other, at opposite ends of a large table. I also watched some TV with her, sitting on a different piece of furniture.
Throughout all this, it would really have been nice to be able to give my mom a hug, and vice versa. To compensate, we got in the habit of standing 6 feet apart from each other, wrapping our arms around ourselves, and saying, “I’m giving you a big hug,” before we went to sleep.
It was sweet and sad and corny, but that was the reality we were in. While I was miserably sick for about a week, I never ended up hospitalized.
After 14 days in quarantine, I was finally free. I’m still coughing and can’t smell a thing (I’m praying that comes back soon), but I’m just so glad I listened to my early instincts.
I’m happy I took steps quickly to avoid infecting others, especially my mom—who, blessedly, is still not showing symptoms.
Yet even though we seem to be through the worst of this, I am now permanently changed in my disease-prevention habits.
For instance, it’s now second nature to me to wash my hands often, and disinfect frequently handled objects like my cellphone and the TV remote.
Mom and I will still be really careful. There is no other option. Because no one wants to be responsible for infecting anyone else, especially those they love.