Sheltered, But Infected: How Can You Catch COVID-19 Staying Home?

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NOTE – First published May 2020 but it is still true. (See ‘People more likely to catch COVID-19 at home’ A recent study out of South Korea speculates relatives are bringing it in but that’s not the whole story)

  • People are becoming more careless than they think over time
  • Even if they are wearing a mask, they’re not wearing an N-95 mask
  • People who stay home may need to use elevators to do their laundry
  • They may share the same circulated air
  • Relatives bring it in
  • EDITOR’S ADDITION – Maybe they’re reaching up inside the mask and touching their faces

They are not using public transport; No buses, trains, or airplanes. They are not nurses, doctors, or other essential workers. Many have been sheltering at home for months.

Why, then, are two out of every three people infected with COVID-19 at home?

How people who seem to be following sheltering guidelines can contract coronavirus remains a perplexing problem. A recent New York survey found that 66% of people with COVID-19 infection are sheltering in place.

In an announcement, Andrew Cuomo called the news “shocking.”

“We thought maybe they were taking public transportation,” the New York governor said. “But actually no, because these people were literally at home… We were thinking that maybe we were going to find a higher percentage of essential employees who were getting sick because they were going to work. That these may be nurses, doctors, transit workers. That’s not the case, and they were predominantly at home.”

The numbers rise even higher for people in their 60s, he said. For that group, the percentage of infected who stay at home was found to be 84%.

Why Are Most People With COVID-19 at Home?

Cuomo offered possible reasons why. Maybe residents aren’t wearing masks as they should. Maybe they aren’t using hand sanitizer. Maybe younger people, who are at lesser risk, were being careless and spreading the virus to older friends, neighbors, and relatives.

But it could be that people are becoming more careless than they think over time, said Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD, an emergency medicine doctor and microbiologist who sits on MedicineNet’s editorial board.

“One of the reasons that they may still be getting infected is that they let their guard down a little bit,” he said. “Essentially we’ve been on shut down for over two months now, and people get stir crazy.”

Although we think we are taking care to prevent infection, it may not be so, Dr. Davis said. For example, the masks available to the public today are not the same quality that would stop an infection.

“Even if they are wearing a mask, they’re not wearing an N-95 mask,” he said. “They’re wearing a mask that’s a bit less effective if they run across somebody shedding the virus, so there’s still a possibility they’re coming down with the disease.”