Considering a Quarantine Pod for 2021

With widespread vaccination on the horizon, here's what you should know about safely socializing until then

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Vaccines for COVID-19 have arrived, and across the country people in various priority groups are already receiving their inoculations.

But for the majority of Americans, vaccines are still months away. If you’re thinking about how you will make it through another half-year or more of social distancing, you might be thinking of incorporating a quarantine pod into your strategy.

Though there’s no official guidance on the concept from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarantine “pod” or “bubble” is a small group of people who agree to interact without safety measures only with each other, taking strict precautions outside the group—such as limiting trips to the grocery store and always wearing a mask in public. One family might pair up with another household or two, for example, or a group of single friends might form a pod together.

Here, advice on whether you should consider a quarantine pod or bubble strategy for the remainder of the winter and spring, and how to create one as safely as possible.

The Risks and Benefits of Pods Today

The idea of pods emerged a few months into the pandemic, as a way to handle the isolation of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, and seemed to become more popular as the pandemic dragged on and on. Now, although the availability of vaccines means a return to a more normal life seems to be in sight, daily coronavirus case counts are still sky-high, many hospitals are stretched beyond capacity, and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 are starting to circulate.

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In this climate, sticking with your household alone is definitely your safest option, says Carolyn Cannuscio, ScD, associate professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“I think if this were open-ended and we had to consider years and years of this, my advice would be different about podding up this winter,” she says. But consider that it may only be a few more months until you can receive a vaccine. “Many people can probably put a calendar out in front of them, and start ticking off the days. It’s like going on a social diet. It’s not the most fun, but if it’s time limited, it’s easier to adhere,” she says.

At the same time, if more months of isolation is more than you can bear, a strict quarantine pod is still a better strategy than loosening up on your protective habits when a vaccine is right around the corner. In fact, according to the experts we spoke with, right now it’s even more important than ever to try and reduce your risk as much as possible.

“At the end of the day, the only way you’re going to stay completely safe is, stay away from anyone, don't interact with anybody, and then when the vaccine is available, get your vaccine,” says Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “I just don’t think that’s possible, completely,” he says, which means the next best option is to try your best to dramatically reduce your risks.

The idea of a pod still can be useful for mental health in the current landscape, agrees Melissa Hawkins, PhD, professor in the department of health studies at American University. But, she says, because the pandemic has lasted so long, fatigue has set in—and that has likely led to relaxing some of the restrictions you began with. “The bubbles are probably leakier now than when we envisioned how they might work practically over the summer,” Hawkins says.

Pods may have begun to overlap. Or they may be larger than they used to be, creating more opportunities for exposure and making communication within the pod more difficult. Pod members may be attending school or work in person.

If bubbles are getting leaky—if people are not being as careful because of either fatigue or hope about a future vaccine—then there’s more potential harm from assuming that because you have a bubble, you’re safe, Hawkins says. A bubble is hardly a bubble at all if everyone in it regularly interacts with people outside of it as well.

With such high levels of risk and more contagious variants circulating in many communities now, you may be more likely to pick up the virus while going about even your most essential errands, like visiting the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor’s office. That means the virus may then be more likely to spread even within pods that are relatively well-sealed.

Still, if you want to go the quarantine pod route, it’s critical—now more than ever—to tighten the proverbial belt on adhering to guidelines and best practices. Here, how to make sure your new or existing quarantine pod is as safe as possible while the country awaits widespread vaccination.

Setting Your Pod Rules

The first question you need to answer: Does a pod make sense for you right now? Hawkins recommends thinking carefully about your goals.

If you initially formed a pod in order to ensure your kids were able to have playmates, for example, but now your kids are back to at least some form of in-person learning, it may not be necessary to keep up the arrangement. (The same could be said for adults who’ve headed back to working in person.)

A pod also may not be right for you if your household includes someone who’s at high risk for severe disease from COVID-19, or who is in a higher-risk, public-facing job. Those are considerations that all potential pod members should weigh.

If you still want to form a pod or keep one going, here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Start (or restart) clean. If you’re starting a new pod, it’s a good idea to try and have all the pod members take a COVID-19 test, Hawkins advises. Testing on its own isn’t sufficient to prevent infections, because results can be negative during the first few days of infection, before you have any symptoms. But testing when you start a pod, and even periodically once you’ve gotten started, is a reasonable layer of security to add.

In addition, anytime you travel or spend time with others, you should take some time practicing “enhanced social distancing” before forming a new pod or socializing with your existing pod, recommends Preeti Malani, MD, chief health officer and professor of medicine in infectious diseases at the University of Michigan.

The CDC recommends cutting out nonessential activities for at least 7 days after you return from a trip—if you can get a COVID-19 test three to five days after you get back. If you don’t test, you should stop nonessential activities for 10 days. (And of course, isolate yourself if the test is positive.)

Choose wisely. Agreeing to pod with others requires detailed and potentially tricky conversations about everyone’s potential exposures to the virus. Cannuscio recommends choosing people you know you can trust to be honest about their behaviors, and to adhere to the guidelines the pod sets. These should be people with whom you can set limits and boundaries, and know that they’ll be honored, she says.

It also helps to pick people you like. Ideal pod-mates are like-minded and enjoy each others’ company, Malani says.

Keep it small. “The smaller the pod, the better,” Malani says. This both reduces the risk that someone will bring COVID-19 into the pod and makes communicating between members easier. Cannuscio recommends limiting your pod to just one other household, if possible.

Set clear rules. Everyone should agree at the start to share a set of guidelines. Talk through how everyone in your group will behave when the pod isn’t together. Is going inside a grocery store to shop okay, or will your group all do curbside pickup or get groceries delivered? Are masked, distanced, and outdoor get-togethers acceptable with people outside the pod, or will your group eliminate any other socializing? Cannuscio recommends regularly taking stock of your exposure outside of your pod—including every time you leave your house or apartment—then working as a group to try and reduce the total number of those exposures.

The rules should include informing all other members about any potentially worrisome interactions or exposures, such as close contact with another person outside the pod. A key rule to include is that if any person experiences any symptoms of a cold or fever, they should immediately share that with the other pod members.

Make a plan for when someone in the pod gets sick. That should of course include cutting off contact between households and quarantining. Because of how quarantine and isolation rules work, all close contacts of a person who gets sick need to quarantine for two weeks (sometimes less with testing, according to CDC guidelines) from the date of the positive test. But if various pod members test positive in succession, that period of quarantine could end up stretching out far beyond the initial period for the first positive case in your group, Cannuscio points out. For someone who may be working in person, that could cause a major disruption, and the risk of forming a pod may not be worth it.

Reevaluate frequently. Establish early on that members should be free to put the pod on pause or bow out if conditions warrant.

Cannuscio recommends planning to keep the pod together only for short periods of time, and renewing every so often. “Don’t just make it an indefinite thing, because I think people get too relaxed over time,” she says.

Reduce risks when you do gather. Even for people who’ve decided to pod up, consider employing prevention strategies at least some of the time while you’re together. Try to gather outside, keep your masks on, and have shorter visits, for example.

Though it might be January, even if you live in cold climates, it’s still possible to have fun out of doors. Malani, in Michigan, says, “There’s no bad weather, there’s just inadequate clothing.” Add loose layers and invest in warm hats, mittens, boots, blankets, and more.

There are also good options for making your outdoor spaces friendlier to cold-weather socializing. You can check out our guide to outdoor heating options here.

Make it count. Whether or not you socialize in a pod, it’s likely that the interaction you do have with others is less frequent than it once was. Malani recommends trying to be very intentional and present when you do gather. “When you do have a chance to be with people, be with people. Don’t be on your phone,” she says.

The same goes for video interactions. Though some have reported so-called Zoom fatigue, video communication tools are still a great option for keeping in touch with people if you can’t pod or with people outside your pod.

Cannuscio recommends bringing a bit more intentionality to these interactions as well. In a holiday call with some of her family, for example, the group arranged to play a game with trivia about fellow family members; in another call, each group member shared a favorite holiday memory and a helpful pandemic coping strategy. “With a little bit of planning, Zoom socializing can go from aimless and dissatisfying to more satisfying and more connected,” she says.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob