Self-isolate, or serve others?
March 17, 2020 3:08 PM   Subscribe

My husband, young child, and I decided to self-isolate early, thinking it is the best thing we can do for our neighbors, community, and society. We are not overly worried about our own health but want to do our part to flatten the curve. Can we do more good by self-isolating, or by risking our health to take care of others who are more vulnerable?

We could be running necessary errands for elderly and immunocompromised members of our community, stocking shelves at a food pantry, working in a soup kitchen, or whatever is most valuable. If we decided to do more outward-facing service, we would do so with the assumption that all three of us in our household would eventually get sick. When the first person showed symptoms, we would all quarantine until the virus had worked its way through the whole family, and then follow the recommendations for how long to stay in quarantine after that (I think it's 14 days but have also heard 28, will definitely research that if we choose this plan).

At the moment we're living in pretty thorough isolation (only going out for groceries, and even that, only once every week or two, could go much less often), and planning to keep it up for many weeks. We are well positioned for a long-term quarantine, sick or not. We are all healthy. Ages 40, 38, and 4. No health issues. No one takes any prescription meds. All quite physically active. We live in a county where the start of community transmission has just been officially documented.

Which is better for the world - using our strength and health to do things for other people, knowing we will in all likelihood get sick ourselves, or staying away from others to slow down the spread? What do we need to think about as we consider this question?

(We're already reaching out virtually to isolated seniors to give them some social contact, and picking up groceries for elderly neighbors when we make our own trips to the store. Other ideas for how to help others while remaining in isolation are welcome!)
posted by TrixieRamble to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your plan to isolate as soon as symptoms occur is not a good one for this specific disease, because a person may be infectious for days before any symptoms appear. That's the reason social distancing is so important in this case.

If you feel that it's really important to help someone who's vulnerable, you should interact only with them, sharing what resources you have. You can designate one person to be extra-isolated as the only person in your family who interacts directly with them, as a bit of a firewall, but again: a person may be infectious for days before symptoms appear. This goes for anyone in your family who you consider to be healthy, and it goes for anyone else you're interacting with who seems healthy.

Social distancing is less about keeping onesself healthy and more about protecting the community, so you're already doing the best thing you can be. It feels really weird, but it's true. The work you're doing to keep people from feeling socially isolated even while they're physically isolated is truly wonderful, so please keep it up!
posted by dbx at 3:16 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I would say that the things you're talking about are important enough that they need to happen even in a society under quarantine. In which case it's not like there's anyone who can do them any more safely than you. So, go right ahead!
posted by serathen at 3:34 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I think for essential tasks, replacing people who would be more vulnerable or less inclined/able to self quarantine after symptoms is a great idea. It's not like those tasks just stop happening if you don't do them, it just means someone else does them (or people suffer worse - this is why there are exempted professions and "essential services" even under quarantine).

No one should tell a soup kitchen worker that the responsible thing to do is to shut down the soup kitchen during quarantine. So for you, you're not a soup kitchen worker yet but you could be and you could replace someone who would be more vulnerable. Or replace someone who is showing early symptoms and can't bear to think of people going hungry, so they are in denial rather than self-quarantining. or replace someone who is bad about wearing gloves and be good about wearing gloves, and a face mask, and keeping your distance.

There's absolutely no guarantee that you and your family would get sick, by the way. But it's a good possibility to be aware of, even while you take precautions to try not to and avoid becoming a vector.
posted by Lady Li at 4:12 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

(note re soup kitchens. There may be plagues so virulent that one would actually shut down the soup kitchen. But even then there ought to be *some* form of essential services and food provision, even if it takes a different form.)
posted by Lady Li at 4:15 PM on March 17

Taking it as a given that someone should do this work and that someone will do it, it's possible that the main question is whether you are going to do a better job washing your hands, etc. than whoever else might be doing these jobs in lieu of you. I think if you do a good job you are probably doing a lot of good.
posted by value of information at 5:38 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I am a grandma, not your kid's grandma. You have a very young child and to me that is reason enough to stay home. You, even as healthy as you are, cannot afford to get sick because if you do you may not be able to take care of your child. You cannot be absolutely sure you will only get a mild case. Since you did not mention them I'm assuming you have no close family nearby who could step in to care for kiddo if you and spouse are both sick.

There are probably other ways you can contribute. Perhaps you can recruit -using email, social media, phone- some local childless healthy young volunteers willing to do such things and give them the tasks your neighbors need done.
posted by mareli at 5:39 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

I think it's admirable that you plan to do this.

I had thought of trying to help others somehow. But my wife has a couple of extra risk factors, so I decided I should limit my outside contact as much as I want her to do so.

Probably a lot of older people who normally volunteer are now keeping themselves inside as much as possible.

I think you could be doing a great service. Thank you.
posted by NotLost at 10:13 PM on March 17

Thanks for the suggestions on helping others. I called my mothers day care center (closed for the duration, but connected to a full time nursing home) to see if they needed help. I don't have any medical training, but I know how to use a mop. They thanked me, and said no thanks.

In the morning I'll be checking with the local food bank. I can stock shelves with the best of them!
posted by Marky at 10:20 PM on March 17

I just signed up for my local medical reserve corps. This is mine, but your locality probably has something similar:
I'm guessing there is going to be a real need for volunteers once the hospitals start getting slammed, and signing up now is a good way to make sure you are in the system when needed.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:49 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

My 71-year-old father is still volunteering at a food bank. Most of the other volunteers are also over 65. They decided to keep it open because otherwise people would not get the food they need. I'd be so happy if younger people would step in to replace them so that the volunteers who are in a high-risk category could stay home. They are of course taking extra precautions to keep people apart and to minimize who touches what, but of course just having people there at all is a risk.
posted by clarissajoy at 10:21 AM on March 18

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