Update June 12: The Government of Ontario announced today that people are allowed to create social circles: groups of 10 people you can come into close contact with. For example, two families can now play together and share meals together, as long those people continue to physically distance from others. Below is the story we wrote a few weeks ago about how to safely add people to your isolation bubble.
Even before Montreal daycares reopened, Eric Tremblay* and his partner had already decided they wouldn’t be sending their 3 1/2-year old back into care. Instead, they’ve decided to team up with another single-child family and share childcare duties with them. In the arrangement, the two preschoolers, who have known each other since they were babies, would spend two days a week at one house and two days a week at the other, while the four parents each take a day watching the boys.
“If we’re going to ease the lockdown progressively, we’d rather do it with friends we know,” says Tremblay. “It seems really counterintuitive, after weeks of being told not to see anyone, to send your kid to daycare.”
Tremblay’s plan is in line with what a number of provinces are now allowing—that is, families to partner up, or create a “double bubble” with another family, as lockdowns lift in those areas. Governments in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Alberta have all said it’s OK, if you’re otherwise isolating, to expand your circle to include another individual or family.
Sumontra Chakrabarti, infectious diseases division head at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont. thinks the idea is a good one, and says that having families and individuals to pair up makes more sense than opening daycares where large numbers of kids would gather. In reality, some families made the choice to do this from the beginning, calling their groups quaran-teams or social isolation pods. (For the record, Chakrabarti feels this wouldn't have been a good choice earlier in the pandemic, but as we're coming off the peak, it's more reasonable.)
“The big payoff for doing this is that people can manage it for longer,” says Ann Jolly, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. “If we are to isolate for months at a time, this is a more manageable strategy than doing it just by yourself. For example, if it's a neighbour, the kids can go over and play with the neighbours and be at the neighbours’ for a meal while you're working for three hours, then take a break and switch.
There are some things to consider, however. For one, once you choose a family to team up with, you have to stick to that family. “You're not rotating families and it's not swelling in and out in terms of people”, says Chakrabarti. That’s because the whole point of staying separate from others is to limit the spread of coronavirus. “Most of the transmission that we're seeing happens in the community and it happens often in households.” At this point, governments still want to limit the spread so that the hospital system is not overloaded. Also, if you were thinking of hiring a nanny or babysitter to add to your circle, you would need to be able to ensure that everyone that person is living with can commit to not bubbling up with another group—tricky for say, a teenage babysitter living with their parents.
Chakrabarti also points out there are two risks to be considered: the risk of acquiring infection, and the risk of severe infection. “The highest risk of acquiring the infection, are actually people who are younger, in the 20- to 50-year old range. You're still working, you're still somebody who's active in society. And kids can get it as well,” he explains. “But the people who are at risk of getting the most severe disease are the older individuals and people with health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.”
In many cases, people in those high risk groups may be safer not bubbling up with another family. But Chakrabarti says that doesn’t mean expanding your isolation group to include grandparents is completely off the table. He points out the risk of acquiring the infection would be significantly lower in a family where the parents are both working from home, for example, rather than working out of the home. Also, even though government guidelines are set province-wide, not all areas have the same risk. If there are relatively few cases in your rural town, for example, teaming up with Grandma and Grandpa likely won’t increase their risk too much, as long as you continue all your risk-reduction efforts, like only leaving the house for essentials, and washing your hands often.
If you do decide to partner up with another family, for your own peace of mind, you’ll want to choose one that’s been operating with the same risk tolerance as you. In Tremblay’s case, both families have only been going out for essentials, and minimizing contact with others as much as possible in densely-populated Montreal.
Whether you’re teaming up in a "double bubble" to share childcare duty, or simply to add some socialization after weeks of being squirreled away, you have to be sure to follow basic hygiene rules, like hand washing when the kids come in from outside, and before you eat. Jolly recommends upping your cleaning practices and reminding kids to cough into their sleeve and avoid touching their face. In some cases, groups have chosen a designated grocery shopper for both families, to limit the amount of contact with the outside world. Jolly, however, doesn’t think that’s necessary, noting that that person would end up being at the store longer. Chakrabarti adds that the risk of picking up the virus at the grocery store is actually quite low. "You generally need prolonged contact to get it," he says.
When the families are together, it will be impossible to keep the kids from getting close to each other, so don’t bother trying, says Chakrabarti. You will, however, want to employ common sense practices, like not letting the kids share water bottles. If a member of the group gets sick, you should stay separate for the duration of the illness, and get that person tested if the symptoms are in line with COVID-19.
So, should we all be bubbling up with another family? It’s tricky to make any blanket recommendations, especially since many provinces have not given people the go-ahead to do so. Many families who responded to a call-out on Facebook, however, said such arrangements were a lifesaver—and the experts we spoke to appeared to think it wasn’t a bad solution for the coming weeks and months. It’s not license to socialize freely however. If you do choose to expand your circle you have to potentially be even more careful, because now you’re at risk of exposing a larger group of people. Still, both Chakrabarti and Jolly think it’s a way to care for your family’s mental health, as well as a practical solution to child care needs, while also limiting the spread of the disease. “We have to be pragmatic too, right? We can't all be like this forever,” says Chakrabarti.
“The main message is, don't all of a sudden start to have three Brady bunches living together in the same roof, right? You want to expand your circle, but be mindful and continue doing all the simple things, like hand washing,” he adds.
*Name has been changed
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