Sorry to burst your COVID-19 ‘social bubble’, but even small gatherings are getting riskier

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For months, Canadians have been gathering with other friends and family to socialize safely during the pandemic.But with the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise in many communities, children returning to school, and more and more people returning to work, many public health experts agree that what worked as a safe approach. at the start of the lockdown now carries more risk.

“I honestly think that with going back to school right now, most people have broken out,” says epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite. “You talk about a lot of connections. ”

In Ontario, “social circles” allow you to see up to 10 people without the usual pandemic precautions, as long as all those family members, friends or neighbors make a pact to socialize only with each other, while in Alberta, the limit for your “cohort” is your household and up to 15 other people.

In British Columbia, the guidelines for a “bubble” are a bit more flexible. Officials say members of your immediate household can be “carefully expanded” to include strangers, with the aim of limiting the number as much as possible – since these are people you are allowed to kiss, hug, chat with, and dine with. , without masks or distancing.

It is a concept adopted in several countries around the world. And while it works well in principle, experts warn that it may be more difficult to maintain it at this point in the pandemic.

The bubble makes sense in “theory”

“As a theory, the bubble makes a lot of sense,” said Dr. Dominik Mertz, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at McMaster University in Hamilton. “But there’s a lot of confusion on the part of people about what it is. ”

He also added that it can be difficult to do safely, especially if the bubble involves multiple households “all of which have different risks.”

Suppose you have two four-person households that socialize without the usual pandemic precautions. On paper, it follows the guidelines of Ontario and British Columbia.

But what if one person returns to work, leaving them exposed to dozens of coworkers? Or are the children in the family in school, where physical distancing and wearing a mask could be a challenge?

A small sphere of contacts can quickly expand to include everyone every family member comes in contact with, meaning the bubbling approach is no longer really “useful,” according to Tuite, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of, University of Toronto. Public health.

“It won’t work for everyone”

Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, agreed that this is not a “perfect model” at this stage of the pandemic.

“It would have worked best when things were completely locked down,” he said, adding that it always helps to bubble bubbles with a few close friends or family if everyone was careful.

“I don’t want to remove any tool from the table,” he said. “If bubbling works for some people, keep doing it. But it won’t work for everyone. ”

For example, a substitute teacher, with a social network of students and staff in various classrooms or even buildings, cannot realistically have a social bubble without any precautions, Deonandan said, while one person working from home might be able to do this more securely. .

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For many people, losing their bubble could mean a long, lonely winter, made worse by mental health issues or life alone.

“We know there are benefits to having this human contact,” said Dr. Nitin Mohan, medical epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University in London, Ont.

But when the drop in temperatures pushes people indoors, where the risk of transmission is higher, and families start planning their gathering during the next holiday period, it could make adherence to the principles of the bubble even more difficult.

Burst of the bubble? Isolate for a while

Mertz says Canadians should already plan for upcoming gatherings like Thanksgiving.

If family members outside the bubble want to celebrate together, find ways to do it safely, he says, by meeting outside and staying away as much as possible. Otherwise, you mix up several household bubbles and increase the risk for everyone.

And if you’re being cautious about a turkey feast, there’s another approach – isolate yourself as much as possible for two weeks after the gathering.

“It would give us downtime, so in case someone gets infected, you don’t spread it from that gathering into each individual bubble,” Mertz said.

The various pundits who spoke to CBC News conceded that it was difficult to stick to even the most secure plan, with peer pressure, slippage, and our innate desire for human connection, so many potential obstacles.

For this reason, Dr Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist with the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, emphasizes that it should not be the sole responsibility of individuals to reduce transmission.

From a system perspective, he says, provincial governments need to ensure that every element of the pandemic plan is adequately resourced: testing capacity, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, and hospital staff.

“If you can’t test people who are symptomatic, then you can’t contact trace… and you can’t identify people who are on the verge of becoming symptomatic and who are unconsciously and unintentionally spreading the disease,” he said. -he declares.

Reducing the size of gatherings in Ontario

Ontario officials say they are working to increase testing capacity amid long lines of several hours in several cities, including Ottawa and Toronto.

The province is also lowering the maximum size for private meetings – things like backyard barbecues or dinner parties, with precautions in place among people from different social circles – in some areas.

The new limits will be 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, with hefty fines of $ 10,000 or more for organizers who break the rules.

Deonandan calls it “the best political intervention” to control the spread of COVID-19, given the growing body of research showing that large gatherings can be hot spots for the transmission of the virus.

“Wearing a mask is important. Distance is also important, ”he says. “But time and time again, we see explosions of cases in otherwise controlled areas… driven by these super-spread events. ”

Even smaller gatherings may fuel the spread of the virus, such as infections after a documented family outing to Toronto and a 10-person cabin trip – which would still follow the province’s new rules – which led to 40 new cases in Ottawa.

It’s not clear if anyone involved in these gatherings was bubbling together, and Mertz points out that in all situations the same safety precautions apply.

“Whether you continue with the concept of the bubble or not, it comes down to less bringing people together, the more time you can spend outside, the more spread out you can – the lower the risk. “

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