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Quarantine bubbles only as safe as least-careful person

Dr. Elizabeth Ko and Dr. Eve Glazier

Dear Doctor: Our kids are having a hard time with social distancing, which seems like it will last forever. My husband and I know some people who have formed a “quarantine bubble” for socializing and getting the kids together. How does that work? Is it safe?

Dear Reader: An important thing to understand about sustained contact during the pandemic, whether it’s with the people in your own household or the quarantine bubbles that have become increasingly popular, is that everyone is only as protected as the least-careful person in the group. The novel coronavirus is highly contagious, and evidence continues to show that it can be spread before an individual develops symptoms. So when talking about groups of people quarantining together, safety is a relative term.

Protecting against the virus requires ongoing vigilance by every individual within a group. This includes frequent and thorough handwashing, sanitizing high-touch surfaces, keeping at least 6 feet apart from any new contacts and wearing a facial covering while in public. As we mentioned recently, emerging research suggests that face masks made with multiple layers of cloth may offer a measure of protection to the wearer as well as the people around them.

All of which brings us to the quarantine bubbles -- some people refer to them as pods or “quaranteams” -- that you are asking about. These are small groups of people who have agreed to engage in non-distanced activities only with each other. Outside of the group, they continue to wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart and limit the time of contact. Quarantine bubbles have been formed with groups of friends as well as with groups of families. They have arisen out of necessity. In the early days of the lockdown, it was possible for people to white-knuckle their way through strict isolation. But as the pandemic stretches on, people are responding to a need to take care of their mental and emotional health as well. Since the pandemic began, depression, anxiety, and loneliness have increased dramatically. Each of these are risk factors for physical illness, including heart disease, stroke and premature death. In the language of public health, the formation of quarantine bubbles is a harm-reduction strategy.

You can mitigate risk by following some important guidelines. Be certain that the network you’re forming or joining is as serious about safety measures as you are. It’s important to keep the group small, 10 people at most. Each additional member increases risk for everyone. Each group member agrees to limit non-distanced activities only to the group, with no exceptions. For the concept to work, you need a closed circuit. Have a plan for what happens if someone breaks safety protocols. Indoor venues are risky, so when possible, keep interactions outdoors. And agree on a trial run, maybe a week or two. That lets everyone get comfortable with the mechanics involved, and to figure out if the bubble approach is right for them.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)


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