We all know by now the safest way to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus is to avoid large gatherings and stay home as much as possible.
But the need to limit the spread of COVID-19 should be considered alongside other factors as well, including our mental and emotional well-being. Complete isolation is not only impractical for most of us in the long term, it’s not healthy.
“COVID-19 has caused isolation on so many different levels. People weren’t meant to live in isolation and weren’t meant to live alone. We are social creatures by nature,” said Lori Grooms, director of infection prevention for OSF HealthCare.
One way to balance a desire to keep yourself and your family safe from COVID-19 while maintaining some semblance of a social life is to create what’s called a “bubble.”
What is a “bubble?”
A bubble is created when a group of people agree to a certain level of protective measures as a condition of physically interacting or socializing together. By keeping this group small and exclusive, you can reduce your risk of exposure to the virus.
An excellent example of this is how the NBA conducted its 2020 basketball season. By creating an isolated community within Walt Disney World hotels, the NBA was able to conduct a three-month season with zero positive cases among 1,500 players, coaches and staff.
The NBA bubble was successful because it was restrictive. Individuals were required to quarantine in their hotel room upon arrival, wear badges that beeped if they were standing too close to one another and undergo daily testing.
Although most lack the resources to create such an elaborate safety net, we can still use the same principles to balance our needs to be around others with our desire to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
1. Define your bubble
The first step in creating your own version of a bubble is to look closely at the people you directly, physically interact with.
“Each person has their own bubble of people they come in frequent contact with, so a household is a bubble. In that extended bubble is the people you work with, and they each have their own bubble,” Lori said.
Be thoughtful about who you want or need to interact with in person, and limit your contact to a smaller group if possible. Maintain other relationships with digital interactions instead of getting together in person.
2. Agree to the rules
Even if you are taking precautions against COVID-19 – such as wearing a mask, physical distancing and frequently washing your hands – if someone else in your bubble isn’t being as careful, their behavior puts you at a higher risk.
“One weak link can put everybody at risk,” Lori said.
Once you’ve established who is inside your bubble, have a direct and explicit conversation about what that means. What precautions will you and your household take and what do you expect of the others in your bubble?
That doesn’t necessarily mean limiting all contact with people outside of the bubble. Many of us have jobs that require in-person work or simply take trips to the grocery store or pharmacy, and that’s OK.
Be explicit about what expectations the people your bubble should meet, such as:
- Encouraging everyone who is able to get a flu shot.
- Deciding what kind of in-person meetings are acceptable. For example, meeting only outdoors, indoors with masks on, etc.
3. Be consistent
Creating a bubble isn’t about eliminating all risk, but lowering your risk and being transparent with those around you.
And while it is safer than socializing with abandon, it’s not a foolproof method for preventing the spread of disease.
“It’s one way to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 and yet maintain that socialization that you need,” Lori said. “It’s not 100% effective, but it’s better than nothing.”
Even if you’re in a bubble and feel confident about your level of risk, you should continue to:
- Wear a mask any time you’re in public.
- Avoid large gatherings.
- Maintain a distance of 6 feet from others whenever possible.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Monitor yourself and those in your household for symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever.