Coronavirus “support bubbles” are becoming more popular as Americans look for new ways to quell loneliness.
Public health experts have been stressing the importance of social distancing since the start of the pandemic in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. For many, isolating themselves for months without seeing some friends or family members in person is taking a toll.
In response, some have turned to social “bubbles” to get some sense of a social life back. But they can be complicated. Here’s what experts have to say about them:
What are coronavirus “support bubbles”?
The idea started in New Zealand and has spread to other countries.
People from separate households were allowed to form “bubbles” in which they could interact without social distancing with only each other, according to BBC. They can visit each other’s homes, stay overnight and have “close physical contact” with one another.
The point was to help those who had been cut off from friends or family.
Other countries, including England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, adopted similar policies in an effort to allow people to visit loved ones safely, BBC reports.
Now, the bubbles, also called quarantine pods, have started “catching on” in the United States, the Associated Press reports.
Are they safe?
While there are benefits to forming social bubbles, they aren’t risk-free, experts say.
First, they require that everyone in the bubble follow the rules of socializing in-person exclusively with the people in the bubble and strictly adhere to social distancing guidelines when in public otherwise, the AP reports.
“You are now swimming in the same pool with not just that person, but all the people those people are interacting with,” Dr. Aaron Milstone at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told the AP.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still lists virtual social gatherings as the safest option amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think we can promise people complete safety when they have face-to-face contact with others outside their household,” Per Block of Oxford University, the co-author of a study that suggested bubbles are a safer option compared with some other strategies, told the AP.
However, social bubbles could be a safer option compared with other reopening strategies.
States have started reopening their economies, with some allowing residents to return to restaurants and bars, where they could come in contact with a lot of people, although establishments are being instructed to limit capacity.
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University, told Vox that bubbles could offer a safer alternative and reduce the risk of super-spreading.
“That’s less likely to happen in the scenario of two families who’ve agreed to be in a bubble together,” Marcus told Vox. “Even if one of them is exposed and the infection is passed between those two families, the overall risk to the community is lower than in a situation where you have 300 people in a crowded bar.”
Additionally, it could encourage people to go out less.
“Plus,” Marcus told Vox, “if we can give people some choices for human contact with relatively low risk, they may not feel the need to go to a bar.”
Experts also tell Vox that support bubbles shouldn’t be tried in areas with high transmission or growing cases.
How to create one
Not only are social bubbles not risk-free, they’re also not as simple as they sound.
Creating them can be a “social nightmare,” Mike Tildesley, a University of Warwick professor who specializes in infectious disease control, told CNBC.
“You could envisage this situation where you name a group of friends, they name a group of friends that includes you, but it has some people that aren’t included on your list and all you’ve got is some sort of porous process that [the coronavirus] filters through the population more slowly that it did before,” Tildesley told CNBC.
Tara Kirk Sell, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told ABC News it’s important to be upfront with the members of your bubble about who your other contacts are and to establish “shared expectations” for the group.
Members of a bubble are agreeing to a social contract, Melissa Hawkins, an epidemiologist at American University, told ABC. That can include a signed agreement or daily check-ins.
“Bubbles are also about support, compassion and mutual understanding, so having those conversations, even if they are difficult, is important to do from the very beginning,” Hawkins told ABC.
When it comes to group size, the smaller the bubble, the safer.
“The fewer the number of people, the lower the risk. I think that the best thing to do is to create a bubble that is sustainable going forward — that size depends on the individual,” Sell told ABC.