Elon Answers: What about home testing?

This is part of a series of articles featuring responses by Elon University faculty members to questions about the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) submitted by Alamance County community members.

I’ve heard about COVID-19 test kits I can purchase online and use at home without needing any help from health care professionals. Are these kits worth getting?

Nyote Calixte, assistant professor of chemistry

Although some COVID-19 test kits have been made available online for consumers, the Food and Drug Administration currently recommends not using these tests for two reasons. First, without proper training, consumers are likely to make errors while conducting the test, leading to inaccurate diagnoses. Second, given the overall shortage of tests, the FDA has asked all manufacturers to distribute their test kits to public health departments rather than providing them directly to consumers.

As new tests are developed and the pandemic becomes less of a crisis, the FDA will likely approve at-home tests for COVID-19, which could help us manage future outbreaks more effectively. For the next several weeks, however, it is best to rely on COVID-19 tests administered by health care professionals.

How effective are homemade face masks? I’m interested in making supplies for health care workers, and I’m also interested in protecting myself and my loved ones. If these are worth making, please provide instructions for how to donate.

Homemade face masks can be useful, but effective social distancing is most important. No mask entirely eliminates the risk of spreading the coronavirus, but some mask designs are more effective than others.

Wearing a mask is most helpful if you are currently infected with COVID-19 and want to protect others. Many Americans are infected right now without even knowing it. Recent information shows many individuals with the virus do not show symptoms, but can still transmit the virus through coughing, sneezing or even talking.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that you wear a cloth face mask in confined public settings, such as your local grocery store, hardware supply store or pharmacy.

To make a mask, use high-density fabric, like a piece cut out of a sturdy cotton shirt. Hold the fabric up to the light to see how much light comes through. The less light, the more protective the fabric will be. You could also use a double layer of fabric. Shape the fabric to make a good fit between the fabric and your face. The mask should not have any gaps where it does not touch your face, because virus particles can escape out the sides. Handmade masks should not be used for children younger than 2, people who have difficulty breathing, and people who cannot remove their masks without assistance.

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If you plan to wear a mask, make sure you know how to put it on and remove it properly. You can search the internet for videos that demonstrate correct use.

Alamance Regional Medical Center told us through an email that it no longer accepts handmade masks, but staff still needs critical supplies such as N-95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves and gowns. To donate these items or to make a monetary gift to Cone Health, click here.

My roommate and I are both young and healthy, but we each have to leave the apartment for groceries and work. Should I be wearing a mask around her, or is social distancing adequate?

If you and your roommate(s) are young and healthy, then social distancing measures and frequent cleaning of “high touch” areas within your home is probably adequate. Wearing a mask is important when outside the home.

If either of you suspects that you may be infected with COVID-19, then the infected person should be isolated, and roommates should start wearing face masks. Visit the Centers for Disease Control website to learn how to make an inexpensive cloth mask using items you may have around your home.

What can I do if I stay at home but my roommate still goes to work?

If someone in your household is still going out for work or other reasons, you should take a few extra precautions at home. Frequently clean “high touch” surfaces you share, such as door knobs and light switches, and continue to wash your hands often. Talk with household members about the steps you will take to ensure the health and safety of one another. If the person who must go to work comes in contact with others, they should strongly consider wearing a mask at work. You could also opt to wear a mask when you are home together or practice social distancing in your home by limiting the amount of time you are in the same room together. If you share a bathroom, wipe down the sink, faucets, and toilet with disinfectant cleaner daily. As social distancing continues, it is important each of you feels welcome and comfortable at home.

Nyote Calixte is an assistant professor of chemistry at Elon University. Reach her at ncalixte@elon.edu.