As the coronavirus has made its way across the United States, it has morphed from a news story in a far-off place into a realistic fear for the health and safety of our communities and loved ones. With this new virus has come non-stop news coverage and warnings to “be prepared.” But what does preparedness look like in this situation? What is a reasonable response to this message? The goal of this article is to give you perspective on the situation and to help you come up with useful solutions that will protect you and your loved ones without compromising local food supply inventory for your neighbors and community.
Natural Disaster vs. Quarantine Preparedness
First, let’s discuss what we can gain from typical disaster preparedness and what we need to think about differently. Most of us have been in a situation before where extreme weather is expected, and we are told to prepare a home emergency kit. It is good practice to always have an emergency kit ready in the event of an unpredictable natural disaster. This kit should contain a minimum three-day supply of non-perishable food, drinking water, batteries, first aid supplies and any other supplies specific to your situation such as infant formula or diabetes medications. The goal of an emergency kit is to provide you with supplies in case the drinking water is contaminated by flooding, power loss compromises your ability to keep refrigerated foods safe, or if you need to rely on foods that do not require cooking. The emergency kit is only intended to last you until you can move to a safer area, are rescued by first responders, or utilities are restored.
While all of this is good advice, if you are placed under quarantine due to the coronavirus, there are some important differences that you will need to consider.
First, a quarantine will likely last somewhere between 14 to 28 days. Second, it is unlikely that utilities or public waters will be impacted. This means that you could potentially need extra food but that you will still have potable water to drink and cook with. Your cooking and storage appliances will still work if utilities are in operation. Therefore, non-perishable and ready-to-eat food is less important than it would be in a typical three-day emergency kit.
Why Would I Be Quarantined?
There are two possible reasons that you could become quarantined. If you come into contact with someone who is confirmed to have COVID-19, or have traveled to a place that has a Level 3 Travel Health Notice, the local health authority will ask you to self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days. The reason for this type of quarantine is to prevent you from spreading the disease to other people in your community if you have been exposed. In this scenario, it is more likely that you might become ill yourself. Businesses such as grocery delivery and restaurants will still be open and thus you can rely on supplies being delivered outside your home for you to retrieve once the delivery person has left.
Another reason you might be quarantined is if there are enough cases in your community that the health agency feels it is in the public interest for everyone to stay home. This type of quarantine is to protect you from contracting the virus from someone out in the community. This type of quarantine would likely last longer than 14 days until the health authority felt confident that the spread of the virus had been contained. This is the scenario that occurred in China and is currently occurring in Italy.
How Much Food Will I Need?
In either case, if you end up under quarantine, you will need to have adequate food on hand or a plan for acquiring food. This does not mean you need to stock up on canned hams or military MREs. Because you will still have refrigeration and your typical cooking appliances, you should purchase foods that your family enjoys.
It is reasonable to bulk up your home food inventory to a roughly two-week supply of fresh and frozen foods, plus some dried and canned goods. Fill your freezer with proteins, fruits and vegetables as these items will not last more than a week in the fridge. If you typically shop for a few days or a week at a time, you can buy a bit more than usual on your next grocery trip. After that, continue to shop at your regular interval and for your regular amount, and rotate your stock to use your oldest foods first to ensure you do not lose food to spoilage.
With a well-stocked freezer and pantry, you should be able to sustain being at home for several weeks. Good items to have in the pantry are things like rice, dried beans, canned tomatoes and spices to make your dishes flavorful. When stored properly in a cool dry place, root vegetables, onions and apples can keep for several weeks. Peanut butter, jelly and tuna fish are also good options, but keep in mind that during a prolonged quarantine, you will need to freeze bread to keep it fresh or bake it yourself.
Purchase some foods you and your family like to have when you are sick, such as chicken soup or popsicles. Your whole family will be home with you, so you will need adequate food for all meals. This might be more than you are used to if your children eat at school or you order out lunch at work.
Will I Starve or Become Nutrient Deficient?
If you are well-nourished and in good physical health, it is unlikely that you will starve or become deficient in any nutrients or protein over 14 days to a month, even if you find yourself needing to ration food. If this is something that is causing you anxiety, one thing you can do now is eat a healthy diet with a variety of fresh produce. This will ensure you have optimal stores of nutrients before any events that would lead you to restrict food. Further, maintaining a healthy diet helps to boost your immune system and protect you from illness. If you are really concerned, you can purchase a multi-vitamin to have on hand in case you find yourself with a limited variety of foods during a quarantine. Ultimately, a suboptimal diet for a short amount of time will not lead to any long-term health consequences for healthy individuals.
Protecting Your Mental Health
In addition to planning for the physical health of your family, think about how you will protect your mental health. Stress can lower our immunity and make us more susceptible to getting sick, so it is just as important to lower your stress as it is to have a healthy diet. Think about these questions to develop a plan to protect your mental health:
Information gathering: Where are you getting your news from? Is it a reputable source? Is it making you feel better about the situation? Is the information helpful?
Stress relief/coping: Do you go to the gym to relieve stress? Do you have a way to exercise at home? Are there any unhealthy coping mechanisms that you know you might fall into during times of stress? Can you come up with a plan now to prevent this?
Preventing cabin fever: How will you pass the time in the house with your family? Do you have enough activities to keep the kids occupied if you need to work remotely? Is there an outdoor area where you can go to get some fresh air?
Community connection: Is spending time with family, friends or a community group important to you? Have you set up video-calling apps with your loved ones so that you can see them virtually, if needed?
For most people, the thought of a quarantine causes a great deal of anxiety. By planning and preparing, you can feel good that you have done the best you can for yourself and your family. Remember, this will not last forever. Bulk up your food inventory with things you like. Prioritize healthy foods now. Find ways to relieve stress.
Hopefully, the preventive actions that are being taken will have the desired effect of stopping the virus and we can go back to life as usual.
For additional resources, go online to:
• Department of Homeland Security Disaster Preparedness, https://www.ready.gov/food
• Pennsylvania Emergency Preparedness, https://www.ready.pa.gov/BeInformed/EmergencyPreparednessGuide/Pages/default.aspx
• Pennsylvania Department of Health Coronavirus page, https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx
• Centers for Disease Control Coronavirus page, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html