What are pandemic pods? 'Social bubbles’ may offer relief from loneliness but there are risks, warn scientists

What are pandemic pods? 'Social bubbles’ may offer relief from loneliness but there are risks, warn scientists
What are Covid-19 pandemic pods? (Getty Images)

Multiple studies have shown people’s deep need for connection and how it can influence health. Social connection is associated with about a 50% reduction in the risk of early death, an analysis revealed, for example. A 2016 study has linked loneliness and social isolation to a 32% increased risk of having a stroke or developing coronary artery disease. A recent report also suggests that loneliness triggers chemical responses in the brain similar to what is prompted by hunger. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, isolation, and quarantine guidelines have forced many to turn to so-called “pandemic pods,” say experts.


What are they?

In a pod, a small group agrees to restrict contact with non-members, thereby providing them with a safer way to socialize with people outside the household. Such pods or “social bubbles” limit people’s exposure to the outside world, and offer “social relief” by facilitating guilt-free social interaction in a time when social distancing remains crucial,” explains the American Heart Association (AHA).


Many see it as a “middle way” to stay safe, healthy, socially supported and sane amid a pandemic that is still raging, says the University of Michigan (U-M). Pods are, however, not officially recommended by public health officials.


Many see it as a “middle way” to stay safe, healthy, socially supported, and sane amid a pandemic (Getty Images)

“Forming a bubble or pod with select friends or loved ones allows for socializing and to share responsibilities such as childcare, eldercare, educating children, housework, cooking meals, etc,” states the WorkLife office at Michigan State University, which has issued tips on how to create one. It adds, “In addition to these functional benefits of quaranteams, the socialization with others can be valuable to mental health as well. This is just one of the creative ways people are using to adjust to the next ‘new normal’.” 

According to Melissa Hawkins, professor of public health and the director of the public health scholars program at American University, “quarantine bubbles,” pandemic pods, or ‘quaranteams’ are an effort to balance the risks of the pandemic with the emotional and social needs of life. “A quaranteam is a small group of people who form their own social circle to quarantine together – and a perfect example of a harm reduction strategy. When done carefully, the research shows that quarantine bubbles can effectively limit the risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) while allowing people to have much needed social interactions with their friends and family,” she writes in The Conversation.

Hawkins emphasizes that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of depression and anxiety and can also lead to increases in the risk for serious physical diseases like stroke, and premature death. “Quaranteams, therefore, are not simply a convenient idea because they let people see their friends and family. Isolation poses serious health risks – both physically and mentally – that social bubbles can help alleviate while improving social well-being and quality of life,” she notes.


Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of depression and anxiety and can also lead to increases in the risk for serious physical diseases (Getty Images)

They need to be managed properly

The AHA cautions that unless pods are managed carefully, they can invite some of the very problems they were meant to solve. There is maybe a false sense of security with these pod arrangements, argues Hawkins, and advises that a pod should be tight and everyone in it needs to agree on why it exists. She warns that individual behavior can put the whole team at risk and the foundation of a quaranteam is trust. “If a pod is small and contained, then you should have less likelihood of infection and a greater ability to respond quickly to reduce spread. But if it’s larger than we think or intended at the beginning – now you’ve got a vehicle of quick transmission to many, many people,” cautions Hawkins.

Hawkins says that everyone must decide how much risk is acceptable and establish rules that reflect this decision. “For example, some people might feel okay about having a close family member visit but others may not,” she adds. Many who have compiled advice on pods emphasize “honest communication and being patient and kind with one another – but also putting things in writing,” explains the AHA. 

Dr Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center, and chief health officer for the U-M community notes that being in a pod is like being in a “little rowboat together and trying to stay dry.” “If someone from the boat jumps into the water and then tries to climb back on board, the boat could tip – or they could get their fellow passengers wet. Taking on too many passengers could make the boat sink,” she elaborates.

The U-M also recommends keeping the pod small and agreeing upfront exactly who is in the pod. “Pledge to be truthful with one another, and swear to follow public health guidance. Even if you think of the pod as being the children, teens, or adults who want to be together for learning or socializing, it includes everyone who lives with a pod member, too. That’s because the virus can spread easily in households or group living quarters. Agreeing to be in a pod, and to let your children or yourself enter other “pod homes” without masks, means you’re taking on the Covid-19 risk of everyone in the pod,” say experts.


Experts advise keeping the pod small, following public health guidance, and maintaining honest communication (Getty Images)

Shalom Patel, the infection prevention manager for Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, suggests a successful pod has to be “based on trust – and living up to the promises you make to other members.” 

Piedmont advises that for creating pods, members should agree to wear masks in public, avoid time indoors with people outside the pod, and limit activities like travel and indoor dining at restaurants. According to researchers, different pods fit different needs. For example, parents who homeschool their children this fall could create an education pod with other families. This way, adults share some responsibilities while allowing children to socialize, says Piedmont infection prevention director Jenay Beshears. 

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health offers a sample pod agreement. It advises that pod members agree to restrict engagement with other individuals outside the pod, including social engagements; trips to stores, dining at restaurants, should be minimized or done outdoors as much as possible, with the recognition that things such as doctor’s and dentist’s visits are still necessary and important; and any interactions with individuals outside the pod should be conducted outside. 

“When interacting with others outside the pod, masks should be worn whenever possible. There will be open communication about activities, questions about what seems reasonable, and sharing of information regarding potential risks and exposures. If any member of the pod has a known exposure to Cocid-19, that member and their family should quarantine. If that member becomes symptomatic or has a positive test, all members of the pod should quarantine for 14 days after the last known exposure,” recommends the document. 


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