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Winter Is Coming. It May Be Time To Start A ‘Quaranteam’ If You Haven’t Already

Health officials in a number of countries have recommended that people form a "support bubble," also known as a "pandemic pod" or "quaranteam" to weather the storm without going insane.
Health officials in a number of countries have recommended that people form a "support bubble," also known as a "pandemic pod" or "quaranteam" to weather the storm without going insane.

Winter is coming, and COVID-19 is still here. That means socializing is about to get harder as temperatures drop and activities move indoors.

One potential tactic is to form something called a “social bubble,” also known as a “pandemic pod” or a “quaranteam.” The gist is to join forces with another family, or small group of people, and socialize exclusively with them while maintaining a safe distance from others.

The first lockdowns started more than six months ago, and at this point COVID-19 fatigue is real. But we’re still stuck between a rock and a hard place: the virus, which can wreak havoc on the body, and isolation, which can wreak havoc on the mind.

“The sense is that people really are just getting tired of the whole thing, which of course makes sense. So we’ve got to find a way to energize,” said Melissa Hawkins, an epidemiologist at American University. “But I think now as winter is coming it’s really important to double down on the strategies that we have and that we know work. And one of them really could be being very intentional about form[ing] a quarantine bubble that works for you or your loved ones or your household.”

Hawkins has written about the do’s and don’ts of “bubbling up.”

“The foundation is communication. Lots of communication,” she said. “And trust — trust to be able to share what’s working, what’s not working, ‘Are we all OK with this?’ Because what one member does affects the whole group and that really has to be the understanding going in.”

In other countries, from Canada to New Zealand, health officials have endorsed the concept and even made it an official pandemic-quashing strategy.

As Hawkins wrote in The Conversation, a growing body of evidence suggests that, “when carefully done,” quarantine bubbles can limit the risk posed by the virus while also mitigating the risks of social isolation.

In the U.K., so-called “support bubbles” are limited to two households, but there are restrictions: one of the households in the bubble can only have one adult. So, a single grandparent could bubble with their grandchildren’s household, but a pair of grandparents could not do so. Similarly, a single parent with children under age 18 could join a bubble with another household. But two households, each with a pair of parents, would not be allowed to bubble. And, as the BBC explained, if one person in a bubble comes down with COVID-19 symptoms, “everyone in the bubble must self-isolate.”

In New Zealand, where between zero and four new cases of COVID-19 are reported per day, distancing requirements have been relaxed and gatherings of up to 100 people are now allowed. But previously when the outbreak was worse, households were allowed to form bubbles with close family, caregivers, or someone living alone. If one person in a bubble came down with symptoms of COVID-19 they were required by law to isolate themselves from the rest of their bubble.

In parts of Canada, “double bubbles” consisting of two households began months ago. Starting in late May, they were allowed to expand to an additional six people, though local health departments cautioned that it should be kept as small as possible and that all additions should occur through bubble consensus. “Just because you can extend your bubble, doesn’t mean you should,” read a local announcement.

Researchers writing in the journal Nature Human Behavior concluded socializing in a bubble is safer than limiting your interactions to a certain area, like your neighborhood, or a certain group, like people of the same age. And scientists studying social bubbles in New Zealandfound they’ve helped fend off mental health issues and deal with childcare needs.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.