A shopper heads to her car with a cart full of groceries, after shopping at customer-constricted Albertsons Market at NM 528 and Ridgecrest Drive the day before Thanksgiving. Due to the governor’s public-health orders of Nov. 19, stores were limited in capacity; Albertsons, as the sign says, was limited to 75 shoppers, with a line of customers awaiting their chance to shop.
Photo Gary Herron/Observer

Fever, cough, shortness of breath and loss of or change in taste or smell most signal the need to get tested for COVID-19, although people with other symptoms may need the test, too, according to a local occupational health nurse.

The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Rio Rancho campus and Sandoval Regional Medical Center partnered to host their first public virtual health seminar with presentations by three SRMC health care providers Monday.

Dr. Matthew Wilks, SRMC Emergency Department and Patient Safety medical director, showed a chart with COVID-19 symptoms and the percentage of symptomatic patients who report them:

  • Cough: 64 percent
  • Headache: 64 percent
  • Fatigue: 62 percent
  • Confirmed or subjective fever: 61 percent
  • Muscle aches: 56 percent
  • Loss of taste or smell: 50 percent
  • Runny nose: 44 percent
  • Chills: 42 percent
  • Sore throat: 39 percent
  • Loss of appetite: 39 percent
  • Diarrhea: 31 percent
  • Shortness of breath: 30 percent
  • Nausea or vomiting: 26 percent
  • Abdominal pain: 16 percent

Occupational health registered nurse Jared Bousliman said people who have a cough, shortness of breath, fever and the loss or alteration of taste and smell should be tested for the virus. Especially in young people, the loss of or change in taste or smell may be the first symptom to appear, he said.

Bousliman said people who experience sore throat, muscle or body aches, headache, nasal congestion or runny nose, diarrhea and nausea or vomiting in combinations with each other should also be tested. So should patients scheduled for surgery or a medical procedure.

Current estimates indicate 40 percent of people carrying the virus don’t have symptoms, he said.

Allergies can cause some symptoms that resemble COVID. Bousliman said people should consider whether such symptoms are new or normal for them to help decide whether to be tested. They should also seek advice.

“It is complicated,” he said.

People who have been exposed to the coronavirus should notify their supervisor at work and anyone who’s been in close contact with them, Bousliman said. Close contact is defined as being within a 6-foot radius of the infected person for a total of 15 minutes in 24 hours.

“We really want to emphasize, if you’re sick, stay home,” he said. “If that means you’re missing a party, missing a birthday, a funeral, it’s very tough, but that really will help to stop the spread of the virus.”

People with mild to moderate cases will need to stay home at least 10-11 days after symptoms start, Bousliman said. Patients needing more treatment or with compromised immune systems might need to stay home for 20 days, he continued.

The novel coronavirus spreads mostly through respiratory droplets and respiratory aerosols, Infection Control program manager and registered nurse Petra Bergenthal said. It less often spreads via surfaces, although studies indicate it can survive on cardboard for about a day and stainless steel or plastic for up to three days, she added.

To stay healthy, Bergenthal said it’s really important to get a flu shot. It’s possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at once, she said.

“Handwashing is super important because we often touch our face without realizing it,” Bergenthal continued. “The eyes, the nose and the mouth are the entrances for the viruses to get in.”

Soap, water and the friction of handwashing for 20 seconds break down the outer cover of the virus, so it can’t replicate, she said.

Bergenthal recommended cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as countertops, door knobs, refrigerator handles and light switches daily with soap and water or a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.

Staying at least 6 feet away from other people allows the wind outside and air currents inside to dissipate the aerosol cloud that may contain the virus before it moves from one individual to the other, she said.

As for masks, they catch saliva particles and aerosol clouds that may contain the virus and are exhaled when someone coughs, sneezes, laughs, speaks or even breathes. She recommended eye protection such as face shields in addition to masks.

Bergenthal warned that regular eyeglasses won’t help because the virus can go around them. Face shields provide better coverage.

People are advised to avoid gathering as well.

“We know that it’s really hard to alter your family traditions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday this year,” Bergenthal said.

She thanked the people who have changed plans to help stop the virus from spreading.

If people contract COVID-19 and find themselves increasingly short of breath, Bousliman said, they need to seek medical help and let the providers know in advance they’ve tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus.

Wilks said people without insurance can get COVID tests for free, as per federal mandate. If they’ve tested positive and have severe symptoms, he said, they can go to a hospital and the health-care system will help them get insurance or pay for expenses.

For people getting over the virus at home, Wilks recommended they hydrate themselves well, take Tylenol or ibuprofen for fever or body aches, and isolate themselves as best they can.

Bergenthal said health-care providers have different types of personal protective equipment for different procedures. At SRMC, no providers have contracted COVID-19 from patients, she continued, which means the guidelines are good and employees know what PPE to use.