December 3, 2020

Your quarantine 'bubble' isn't as safe as you think

Daily Briefing

    Some Americans have turned to quarantine "bubbles" or "pods" to socialize amid the pandemic, but there's no consensus on what constitutes a bubble—and experts say they may not fully protect you against the new coronavirus, Rachel Gutman writes for The Atlantic.

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    What is a bubble?

    In theory, a bubble—or pod—is a small and exclusive group of people who do not live in the same household but have agreed to spend time with one another indoors as long as they're practicing social distancing with everyone outside of their bubble, Gutman explains.

    Bubbles are intended to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus by containing the pathogen in small groups of people and preventing it from reaching others, Gutman writes. "The goal here with an infectious agent like [the novel coronavirus] is that you want to try and not give it hosts," Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told Gutman. "That's the name of the game."

    In June, a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour showed bubbles are the most effective way to flatten the Covid-19 curve—but only when people in those bubbles limit their social interactions to the same few contacts, Gutman writes.

    More Americans are forming quarantine bubbles—but there are risks

    To stay safe during the country's coronavirus epidemic and prevent loneliness, many Americans have formed their own bubbles, Gutman writes. In July, an Axios-Ipsos poll of more than 1,000 Americans found 47% of respondents said they had established a bubble, Gutman writes. And many more Americans are expected to form bubbles as winter's colder temperatures make socializing outdoors more difficult, Gutman explains.

    But creating an effective bubble may not be as straightforward as it seems since there are no official guidelines on the topic from CDC, the White House, or President-elect Joe Biden—and many simple questions about bubbles remain unanswered, Gutman writes. For instance, it's unclear what people in a bubble can safely do together or how many people should be in a bubble, Gutman writes. While Beth McGraw, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, recommends bubbles include up to 10 people who live in a few households, she and other experts stress that there's "no magic number" that makes a bubble "safe or unsafe," Gutman writes.

    How bubbles may differ

    One of the biggest challenges is the lack of clear guidelines on how to establish bubbles, Gutman writes.

    To get a better understanding of what constitutes a typical bubble in the United States, Gutman spoke with five Americans about their bubbles. She found all of them largely agreed on two fundamental aspects of their arrangement: Members of the bubble could interact with one another indoors for extended periods without masks, but they could not do so with people outside of their bubble, Gutman writes.

    However, when it came to other practices, Gutman found much less consensus. For instance, Gutman found three of the five bubbles were closed, which meant none of the members of those bubbles had close contact with people outside of their bubbles, while two of them were not self-contained.

    At Jen Angel's household, for example, her six housemates are allowed to interact with a few of their "most important people" indoors unmasked—and there is no limit on how many people those contacts are allowed to see or how those contacts' contacts can mingle outside of the initial bubble, Gutman writes.

    But that can create problems, Gutman explains. When bubbles are "open to an untold number of people's germs through contacts of contacts (of contacts of contacts of contacts)," people are at risk of being exposed to the new coronavirus.

    Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, told Gutman, "I think there's leakage in a lot of people's pods." A New York Times columnist last week, for example, examined his bubble and found out that he was connected to over 100 people—and that's only the people whom he could trace, Gutman writes.

    Meghan Moran, an associate professor of health, behavior, and society at Johns Hopkins, told Gutman that, "We get into trouble when people maybe think they're in a pod, but some recommendation is being violated."

    "As soon as you sort of break your bubble, the connections can be infinite. And this is how [the virus] spreads," McGraw said.

    How to fix your bubble

    But there's an easy way to strengthen your bubble, Gutman writes. According to Gutman, people can make their bubbles more effective by simply pre-negotiating the rules of their bubbles and having members of your bubble agree to follow similar precautions. While experts note that this does not mitigate all risk (as you can't control people who break the negotiated rules without disclosing it), it's generally considered better to have fewer contacts.

    "If we do not reach a consensus on best bubbling practices soon, we risk blasting a hole in one layer of our armor and opening ourselves up as a nation to even more unnecessary sickness and death," Gutman writes (Rachel Gutman, The Atlantic, 11/30).

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