What You Need to Know About Pandemic Pods
Can families expand their COVID-19 quarantine bubbles with minimal risk?
By Matt Villano
With well over 5.25 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic likely will not conclude any time soon. But after months of sheltering in place to stay safe and flatten the curve, the start of a new school year has prompted some families to consider teaming up to tackle virtual learning in small groups.
The groups colloquially are known as “pandemic pods.” Though these arrangements may have benefits for children involved, doctors say they also likely increase risk of exposure to COVID-19. Michael Smit, MD, MSPH, Hospital Epidemiologist and Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, advises against joining a pandemic pod unless you think you can trust that the other members are following public health guidelines explicitly.
“I’m not advocating for this pod concept or for people increasing their social interaction at this point,” Dr. Smit says. “Community transmission is still quite high—too high—and I think it’s premature to expand your social groups and introduce more risk.”
The concept of “podding” has existed for a while; families in Los Angeles and around the country started exploring the option when the first round of safer at home restrictions were lifted in late May. The idea: Several families extend their circle to include each other—but agree to follow local health guidelines and avoid close contact with others.
Because these groupings are informal, there are no current data on the number of pods across the country and how many families are participating. Advocates of podding have cited several potential benefits, including convenience for working parents who need help with childcare and psychosocial connections that children lack while isolated in their respective households. Still, Dr. Smit warns that the public health issues surrounding podding supersede everything.
“At this point I would still recommend limiting social interaction,” he says. “I know it’s difficult and that people struggle with the issue of isolation, but it’s the smartest way forward.”
What to ask potential pod-mates
For families insistent on forming pods, Dr. Smit recommends evaluating potential pod-mates on how they accept and embrace four key public health issues: physical distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene and immunization philosophy. It is also important to understand that even with the members of a pod behaving responsibly, transmission of the virus may occur through people without symptoms.
Dr. Smit says it’s critically important that people continue to keep at least six feet of physical distance between others at all times, and still mandatory that people wear masks to cover their mouths and noses whenever they are out in public. He adds that people should regularly wash and sanitize their hands to minimize germ transmissions.
“These principles are simple, but execution is difficult,” he says. “The moment someone falters even slightly, risk goes up.”
Dr. Smit adds that it’s important to discuss immunization philosophy with potential pod-mates, especially since the annual flu season is rapidly approaching. Here, he says people should only consider forming pods with those who plan to get flu shots—a strategy that likely will project the group from additional virus threats later this year—and those who plan to get the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available.
“These are not easy subjects to discuss but you need to be upfront about asking the right questions and listening for the right answers,” he says. “We’re in a global pandemic. At this point there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to asking these kinds of questions.”
Dr. Smit also says that while it is helpful to know if potential pod-mates have been tested for COVID-19, risks remain possible unless people have quarantined since the last negative result.
For those who are interested in forming pods, it’s important to listen closely to what prospective pod-mates share about their public health practices and evaluate responses objectively to make sure others are on the same page as you.
Dr. Smit says this process includes being realistic about promises others say they can keep.
“There are always going to be intangibles that factor into this, things that are basically out of our control,” he says. “Children aren’t predictable. Things can happen.”
For example, someone might think his teenagers are following the rules but, in reality, one child is going to parties and another is sneaking out to see a friend. In another family, an attention-starved toddler may see a friend in the park and run over for a hug, or think nothing of picking up a wayward basketball and firing it back to the person who lost it.
For these reasons, Dr. Smit notes that it’s difficult for families to quantify how much risk they’re taking on by entering into a pod.
“It is challenging to make important decisions about your family’s health based on imperfect information, which is what we are dealing with now,” he says. “More than anything, at this time, it’s best to proceed with caution.”