When my kids’ school district announced last Thursday evening that, after one more day of school to prepare students for at-home learning, all schools would be closed for at least two weeks in order to prevent the spread of covid-19, the dominant emotion I felt was relief. I’ve been diving deep into the science on the novel coronavirus, reading updated epidemiology reports daily, and diving into the scientific literature on infection susceptibility, all in order to take prudent actions for my own protection and to create informed, measured, and actionable resources for you (like my upcoming free online public lecture and last week’s post Natural Approaches to Cold & Flu Season (and Covid-19!)). I’ve spent the last couple of weeks preparing for the eventuality of a coronavirus shutdown and/or my need to self-isolate. For the last few weeks, I’ve been washing my hands frequently, cleaning high-touch areas in my home every day, and social distancing (it’s weird when you’re the first person doing it), all while keeping tabs as public health officials recommend social distancing, affected areas close schools, businesses move to work-at-home models, conferences cancel, and local governments establish containment zones and ban large gatherings.
After my kids’ school district announced their coronavirus shutdown, more announcements followed. Their after-school activities are also cancelled. My husband will be working from home for the foreseeable future. I went for a walk around my neighborhood on the weekend, and most of the other walkers I passed were practicing social distancing. We still said hello, while jovially acknowledging our safe 6-foot distance. Now that we’ve started a coronavirus shutdown, I feel safer, and I have an action I can take as part of a broader community effort.
Why a Coronavirus Shutdown Is Needed
The goal is to slow (or better yet, stop) the spread of covid-19 to blunt the peak infection rate so that our medical systems won’t be overloaded with patients requiring respiratory support and/or ventilators all at once (as they are in Italy, where they’re even having to make wartime type decisions about who will receive treatment). The time that an effective coronavirus shutdown can buy us may also allow for the development and testing of effective antiviral treatments, and for testing capacity to ramp up sufficiently to meet current demand.
The challenge is that, in the absence of widespread testing, we have so little information to act on. An individual doesn’t know if they have a regular ol’ cold, a bad flu, or a mild case of covid-19, so they don’t know whether or not to quarantine themselves. Worse, because there’s evidence that people can shed virus for up to 5 days before they show symptoms, an individual could be spreading the novel coronavirus without even knowing they were exposed. There’s even evidence that infected young people especially may be asymptomatic, meaning they can have covid-19 and be contagious but with zero symptoms. Testing capacity has yet to ramp up to the point where people without symptoms or with only mild symptoms can qualify for testing. What this means is that social distancing and isolation are the only tools we currently have as a community to stop the spread of covid-19 and protect the vulnerable among us.
We can observe what’s happening in other countries. Italy, for example, has been on lockdown for over week already in order to slow the spread of covid-19 to hopefully ease the overwhelm of their medical system; people are asked not to leave their homes except if absolutely necessary and the only businesses allowed to be open are pharmacies and grocery stores. France, Spain, Ireland and Denmark have just started similar coronavirus lockdowns. China mandated the largest quarantine in human history, and is finally seeing a big drop-off in new cases. What’s the difference between a shutdown and a lockdown? In this context, a lockdown refers to a government mandated closing of schools, businesses, and social gatherings, in addition to home isolation. In Italy, people who violate the lockdown rules potentially face several months in jail and hefty fines. In contrast, a shutdown is a recommendation, which relies on businesses and citizens to take prudent action, perhaps with a few mandates such as how some states have already banned gatherings over a certain threshold number of peoples (any gathering of more than 250 people is banned in California, for example). It is my hope that if we come together in our communities to effectively shutdown for a few weeks, we can prevent our situation from having to reach the extremes experienced in other countries.
If you have the ability to just stay home, I strongly encourage you to do so. This choice isn’t just about protecting you and your family, but protecting those in your community who are at high-risk of a severe or critical disease course. If you think you can’t cloister yourself in your home for the next few weeks, I urge you to critically re-evaluate whether or not that’s actually true. I’m acutely aware that many people don’t accrue sick leave, are contract or gig economy workers that only get paid for the hours they put in, and/or are living paycheck-to-paycheck. If you’re stuck between a rock and hard place on this one, I don’t want to add to your anxiety or guilt. Instead, read Natural Approaches to Cold & Flu Season (and Covid-19!) and institute every action item to protect yourself and those around you as best you can. But, for those of you affected by coronavirus shutdowns or voluntarily staying home as your important contribution to controlling the spread of covid-19, I’d like to share my tips to prepare.
Yes, we need to take prudent actions and be willing to accept a major disruption to our normal routines, but freaking out won’t help anyone. The appropriate reaction here is a nice happy middle between complacency and panic. Preparing for a coronavirus shutdown and a few weeks spent at home can be implemented responsibly and calmly.
Panic buying not only leads to disruption of supply chains and shortages of essential goods, but is itself contagious. It’s so tough not to go out and buy three packages of toilet paper when we see those empty store shelves, even though one package will probably be enough to get us through. Here’s what to remember: Even countries on lockdown have a mechanism for shopping for food and household items. In Italy for example, there’s a cap on how many people can go into a store at a time and people in line outside have to stand at least 3 feet apart, but they can go out and get what they need. It’s best to minimize your trips outside of the home during a coronavirus shutdown, and you’ll want to practice social distancing and hand washing when you do go out, but it will remain possible to buy groceries.
What Groceries to Stock Up On
I’m a person who tends towards food hoarding already (it’s a behavioral leftover from binge eating disorder, see Dr. Sarah’s Story). I’ve been adding an extra package or two of frozen vegetables to my cart every shopping trip for a couple of weeks. So, I have enough food in my fridge, freezer and pantry for two weeks of good meals, although there may be some weird food combinations in that second week. Okay, so hindsight is 20/20. What do you do if you’re going into a coronavirus shutdown now but didn’t start stocking up weeks ago, especially now that stores are out of stock of so many essentials?
The good news is that the healthy foods you’re used to buying aren’t generally the ones disappearing off of store shelves. There’s still plenty of fresh produce, quality meats and seafood, and most typical Paleo pantry items. Online stores that cater to our community like Thrive Market and ShopAIP, as well as specialty online stores like ButcherBox and Tropical Traditions, are well-stocked (although Thrive Market is experiencing shipping delays). And as long as you aren’t looking for hand sanitizer or face masks, Amazon is still a good option. And don’t forget your local farmers! While many farmers markets are also shutting down, you might be able to drive out to a farm stand, opt in to a CSA box, or meet a local farmer at a drop-off point.
So what to buy?
Let’s start with fruits and veggies, since that’s what makes up most of our plates (see The Importance of Vegetables and The Diet We’re Meant to Eat, Part 3: How Much Meat versus Veggies?). I’m stocking up on fresh produce that keeps well for at least a week at room temperature or in my fridge. And, I’ve frozen some fresh veggies in addition to buying prepackaged frozen veggies for when the fresh produce runs out. Here’s what I have on hand right now:
- In my pantry or on my countertop: sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, onions, apples, oranges, mandarins and grapefruit.
- In my fridge: kale, collards, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, beets, celery root, grapes, and melon.
- In my freezer: mushrooms (I just sliced fresh ones and froze them myself), green beans, broccoli, cauli-rice, peas, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, artichoke hearts, berries, mango, plantain (I peel and quarter before freezing), and ripe bananas.
For high-quality protein, here’s what I have on hand right now:
- In my pantry: Epic bars and snack strips, and canned fish (sardines, salmon and tuna).
- In my fridge: Applegate uncured grass-fed beef hotdogs and organic roast turkey, plus whatever is thawing for dinner.
- In my freezer: a ton of grass-fed ground beef, plus a package of chicken legs, chicken breast, a whole turkey (yes, I impulse bought a turkey), stew beef, salmon, bacon, pork chops, a few Paleo on the Go meals, homemade bone broth and a variety of leftovers, mostly soups and stews.
I also have a well-stocked pantry that includes my staples like high quality olive oil, pink salt, cassava flour, packaged bone broth, nuts, seeds, honey, dried fruit, spices, larabars, dark chocolate, coffee, and loose-leaf tea.
My rule of thumb going forward: I’m going to aim to go to the store no more than once per week (and as I mentioned, I think I can go two weeks right now without needing to leave my home), and instead of my usual shopping at 4 or 5 stores throughout the week, I will limit myself to one and make do without whatever I can’t get there. I also will plan to go to the store when it isn’t likely to be busy (like first thing in the morning on a weekday), practice social distancing, use all the hand sanitizer, and wash my hands and clean when I arrive home.
How To Clean Fresh Produce
I admit that I’ve become acutely aware of what I touch when I’m out of the house. I’m keeping alcohol-based hand sanitizer in my purse and in my car, and I’ve added wiping down my steering wheel and any touchable surfaces in my car with multi-purpose cleaner to my daily cleaning regimen. I’m giving people a wide berth in the grocery store and I’ve taken to washing my reusable fabric grocery bags every time I use them. So, as you can imagine, the day that it occurred to me that several pairs of hands could have touched that apple before I grabbed it and put it in my produce bag, I had a perfectly measured and sensible reaction. Okay, I admit I spent hours online trying to figure out what we know about how long coronavirus can stay alive on different surfaces and how to wash fresh produce to make it safe. Good news! There’s no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted via food and the recommended procedures from the FDA are the same as how we protect ourselves from food-borne illnesses.
So, for most fruits and vegetables, a good rinse with plenty of plain ol’ tap water will do. And, for anything firm with a peel or rind, you can use a vegetable brush to scrub under running water as well. Then dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. For more details, here’s the FDA’s guidelines.
Meals You Can Cook From Your Pantry
I don’t mind winging it with limited ingredients for dinner. In fact, that’s already a pretty common occurrence for me on Fridays when the fridge is usually pretty bare. But, I realize that missing an ingredient for a go-to meal can be stressful for many people, and the what-to-cook-when-all-I-have-in-the-house-is-green-beans-and-ground-beef dilemma can be nerve-racking for many. Also, if you’re used to cooking with fresh ingredients, there’s definitely a learning curve to making those same meals from frozen (in general, half the cook time for frozen veggies compared to fresh).
Here are my tips for meals with what you already have on hand:
1. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple. When I was a kid, we’d sometimes have hamburger patties for dinner with steamed vegetables and boiled potatoes on the side; my Dad called it “poor man’s steak”. We’ll be eating plenty of simply cooked meats and plain roasted or steamed vegetables during our coronavirus shutdown. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment. Now is a great time to try a new recipe or just get creative in the kitchen with what you have on hand. I’m sure I’ll be making lots of random scrambles, stir fries and smoothies too.
2. Soups, stews, scrambles and stir-fries don’t need a recipe. Sure, I have a ton of recipes on this website, but know that for these types of meals you can approximate the amounts of any ingredient, make just about any ingredient swap or omission you want, or completely freewheel it with whatever you have on hand.
3. Don’t fuss over weird food combinations. If you’re trying to go one more day before you venture out to the grocery store (great!) and all you have left in your home is frozen broccoli, olives and canned sardines, well, I doubt that would be a go-to combo for anyone, but you can still make a meal out of that. Just think of the awesome stories you’ll be able to tell later! Similarly, if your meals aren’t as balanced as you normally aim for, don’t let that stress you out. And, don’t worry if you’re eating dinner for breakfast or breakfast for dinner, etc. Just do your best with what you have on hand, and think about what you’ll add to your grocery list for when you do finally get out to the store.
4. If you really need help in the kitchen, Real Plans is a great resource. In this case, the meal planning and shopping list functionality isn’t as useful as the recipe database. You can browse their recipes by ingredient and dietary restriction to find a recipe that only uses what you already have in your home. Of course, that meal planning and shopping list functionality will be super helpful when you do finally get out for your next shopping trip!
Household Items to Stock Up On
The two biggest things I’m using a lot more of in my home than usual is all-purpose cleaner and handsoap, so I have purchased extra to make sure I don’t run out. It’s worth mentioning here that there’s a technical difference between cleaning (where you’re removing bacteria and viruses by trapping them in your cleaning solution and rinsing/wiping them away) versus disinfecting (where you’re killing the bacteria and viruses with a powerful antimicrobial chemical). My daily routine includes cleaning all the high-touch areas I can think of in my home (which is certainly more time consuming than disinfecting, but also reduces use of harsh chemicals in my home) and swapping out hand towels and cloth napkins daily (so I’m also doing a bit more laundry), but I am also using 70% isopropyl alcohol to disinfect things like our mobile phones as well. The EPA has a list of disinfectants that should be effective against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes covid-19) here.
The other main item that authorities are recommending we stock up on is prescription medications. Depending on whether or not any medications you take are likely to experience supply chain problems and/or shortages, and depending on your insurance, you might simply order refills a week or two early, or you might want to get a 3-month supply now. If you’re taking a medication that would be harmful to abruptly discontinue, I think it’s important to call your doctor and/or pharmacy to see what they recommend. For some of you, this may apply to supplements as well. Again, I recommend calling your doctor to get their specific recommendation.
I also did an audit of my medicine cabinet, which I’m glad I did because almost everything in it was expired (we’re generally a pretty healthy family and rarely use OTC medications). I bought extra of the supplements that I prefer to take when I do get sick to have on hand just in case (see Natural Approaches to Cold & Flu Season (and Covid-19!)).
Again, I’m trying to be responsible and not contribute to panic buying while making sure I have enough of necessary household items to limit my need to venture out to the store during this coronavirus shutdown.
Work From Home Tips
I admit that my hackles were raised when I watched an interview with an economist who was explaining the economic implications of coronavirus shutdowns and who expressed with disdain how awful it was to have so many people work from home since they’ll be so much less efficient. Dude, plenty of us already worked from home! And, I can tell you from my own experience that I’ve always been more effective, efficient and diligent when I’m working from home rather than an office. Of course, I realize that many people are the opposite and find it challenging to work from home, especially when it’s unfamiliar. So, let me share with you my tips to work from home successfully.
- Set up a dedicated workspace. Because working form home is my normal, I have an awesome workspace with a treadmill desk, book shelves, filing cabinet, light therapy box, and neat (ish) piles of notebooks. That’s not the case for my husband or kids though, so we took some time over the weekend to set up dedicated workspaces for each of them. My husband took over half of the dining room table, and we cleaned and organized the kids’ bedrooms so they could actually see the surfaces of their desks. These spaces will stay set up as workspaces for the full duration of our coronavirus shutdown.
- Set up a work schedule. I have regular work hours and scheduled breaks even though I’m self-employed. This routine helps me stay focused and on track. So, for our coronavirus shutdown, we’ve done the same for my husband and my kids. My 10-year old went so far as to make a schedule for the entire day that included entries such as “family time” and “chill time” in between “school work”, “reading” and “play in the backyard”.
- Evaluate distractions and eliminate them. The lack of fun people to talk to is probably why I get so much more work done per unit time at home than I used to when I worked in an academic research lab (although, I still qualified as a highly efficient hard worker back then too). I don’t work with the TV or radio on in the background, and prefer silence. But, if you’re used to working with music on in the background and find that that helps you focus, to each their own. A major distraction for many will be their smartphones, so if you find yourself picking up your phone too often during your workday, try placing your phone out of reach (but where you can still hear it ring if you get a phone call), or putting it on airplane mode, or using screen time features to limit your own screen time.
- Avoid multitasking. We’re actually far less efficient when we multitask than if we just did each task we’re trying to complete serially. For example, if I’m writing a blog post, my e-mail and social media tabs are closed. If I’m writing a social media post, that’s the only think I work on until it’s done. When I have a lot on my To Do list, I actually create a very specific work schedule that allots time for each task.
- Take movement breaks. Set an alarm on your smartphone (that’s placed out of reach) to go off every twenty minutes, and get up and move around. At first, this can feel disruptive, like you’re just getting into the groove of something when you have to take a break. But, after a while, you’ll find that your mind can stay very focused even while you’re moving and that it actually can help you focus for longer. Plus, it’s really good for your overall health and immune function, see The Benefits of Gentle Movement.
I’m also avoiding my gym this week and am instead opting to workout at home. (Super shout-out to CrossFit Dwala for temporarily closing out of an abundance of caution and for programming at-home workouts for its members!). Even if you have no home workout equipment, you can create a pretty intense workout with jumping jacks, burpees, air squats (or jumping squats or goblet squats holding some heavy household item), step ups (on to a sturdy chair!), push-ups, sit-ups, lunges (you can weight those too), plank holds, wall sits and other static holds, etc. And if you do happen to have a kettlebell or some dumbbells or an old exercise bike gathering dust in the garage, even better!
Try putting all the different exercises you can think of on index cards and pull four of them out of a hat. Set a clock for however long you want to work out for (I usually do 32-40 minutes) and rotate between those four movements, every minute on the minute. I’ve also pulled out my old yoga mat for some sun salutes. We’re also running around in our yard (playing a variety of games, like family tag, to make it fun), walking or biking around our neighborhood (just giving ourselves 6 feet of space when we pass anyone else out for a walk or bike ride, and avoiding touching anything like playground equipment, park benches, etc.), and we may even venture out to a few favorite hiking spots that have always tended to be really quiet (although we’ll hightail it home if the parking lots are crowded).
It’s really important to me that my family and I stay active, because it’s so important for immune function (again, see Natural Approaches to Cold & Flu Season (and Covid-19!), while also making sure to stay true to our coronavirus shutdown. If you’re feeling uninspired, this might be a good time to sign up for an at-home workout programs like Autoimmune Strong and Kettlebell Movement.
Let’s focus on some awesome positives. By avoiding a commute, we’re gaining valuable time in our day. With so many activities cancelled, well, that frees up time too. And while you can certainly use that bonus time to catch up on some binge-worthy TV shows, I want to share what we’re doing to use this extra time for life-enriching activities.
My kids will only have about a half-day’s worth of school work to do during our coronavirus shutdown, so over the weekend, we had a family meeting to brainstorm what they could do with that extra time other than playing on a screen. They actually agreed to lengthen their piano practices during the coronavirus shutdown and even tackle an extra new piece! I’m pretty sure I get massive parenting bonus points for talking them into that one. If your kids (or you!) play a sport, you might be able to set up drills in your garage or yard. Or, if your kids participate in some other after-school activity, you might be able to find a way for them to practice from home.
Other ideas that we came up with included:
- reading (I challenged both of my kids to read outside of their normal comfort zones)
- creative writing (write a novel, short story, poem, or script!)
- arts & craft projects (try something you normally would never have time for)
- card and board games (I challenged my kids to learn some new games)
- meditation (we’ve been doing Headspace meditations together as a family since New Year’s, but we’re going to choose longer meditations)
- video calls with friends and family (connection is still important)
- learn something new (how to knit, crochet, sew, cook, gardening… or research something interesting)
I also suggested my kids do a Spring Cleaning and thoroughly organize their rooms (more than just their desk areas). Well, let’s just say that I’m happy they agreed to the extra piano practice and I’ll tackle this one again in a week or so. We’ve also committed to some family time activities every day, like playing board games, going for a walk, playing in the backyard, meditating, or just hanging out together. Spontaneous dance parties to goofy kids music is also on the To Do list!
And, if you’re looking for even more inspiration to turn all this extra time at home into quality time, why not learn a new language (or brush up an old one)? There’s plenty of great apps and podcasts to choose from! Have a passion project that you’ve never had time for? Maybe now is a good time to tackle it!
I also want to encourage you to use this time to dial in lifestyle factors that are a challenge with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. So, consider:
- getting more sleep (ideally 8-9 hours every night on a regular schedule)
- getting more activity (maybe add a 30 minute walk every day, or work on taking movement breaks while you’re working from home)
- adding resilience activities to manage stress (meditation, yoga, nature time [it’s okay if it’s a backyard], laughter time, meditative activities like jigsaw puzzles and coloring books)
What If this Lasts Weeks or Months?
It might. The Center for Disease Control is now recommending no gatherings of over 50 people for at least 8 weeks. And, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said that we should expect shutdowns to last weeks or even a few months, especially in areas where there’s already confirmed community spread of covid-19. Our schools have said they’re closing for two weeks and will re-evaluate, but I fully expect that they’ll stay closed, especially as they work the kinks out of their at-home learning implementation and how to support families in need. So, what do we do if this isn’t just two or four weeks? As Dori so wonderfully said, just keep on swimming, swimming, swimming… We’ll all get better at this new routine as we get into it.