In recent weeks, many of us have begun to explore quaran-teaming, where two households in isolation join forces, whether for social purposes or to help address specific needs. The adult moving back in with her elderly parents who have trouble managing alone, the families who need to swap child care: This trend, also referred to as forming a “quarantine bubble” or a “quarantine pod,” has been touted as one of the ways to combat quarantine fatigue, as well as address some of the issues associated with long-term isolation.
But how safe is quaran-teaming, really? If two families or households are considering it, what factors do they need to weigh before they make the decision? As with all things pandemic-related, this is one of those situations in which risks and benefits must be weighed very carefully, and all parties need to agree to the same set of rules before they start quaran-teaming.
“There are a lot of layers of complexity,” says S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It’s all about who is coming into contact with who and what they are doing to mitigate risk.”
As with seemingly everything pandemic-related, there are a lot of factors to consider. You may find the safest option is not the one you initially expect.
Consider the risk profile of everyone involved
If anyone in the quaran-teaming arrangement is high risk, the decision must be taken that much more seriously.
“Some of this comes down to individual risk assessment,” Long says. “Are you high risk? Does anyone high risk live in your household? That increases the risk.”
Risk profile also includes the potential exposure of everyone within the relationship. Two families with adults who both work at home and who are very careful about taking all of the necessary precautions will have a very different risk profiles than two families in which the adults are working in jobs that require them to leave the house and interact with a lot of different people.
If some or all of the adults are working in jobs with a potential for exposure, then it “becomes an exponential risk calculation,” Long says.
Communication is crucial
As anyone who has ever lived with a roommate can attest, managing on-going living arrangements can be tricky. Whether it’s disagreements over shared food, acceptable noise levels, or who is responsible for cleaning the dirty dishes, two people can have very different ideas about what does or does not constitute considerate behavior. The same will also apply to two families who, although they aren’t planning to live together, may be thinking about quaran-teaming, and who will be spending extended time in each other’s homes.
“Is everyone on the same page in regards to social distancing and what is ok and not ok?” Long says.
Instead of disagreements about whether it’s okay to eat your roommate’s leftovers or who is responsible for the dirty dishes, this could include disagreements over what actions and behaviors constitute acceptable levels of risk. If everyone isn’t on the same page, things could quickly get out of hand, with each person experiencing the same risks as those taken by the most lax member of the group.
Weigh the alternatives
Risk exists on a spectrum, which means it’s important to think about what the relative risks of the alternatives will be. If the choice is between sending your kid to a daycare that has stringent procedures in place or swapping child care with a family with parents who work in a high risk environment, choosing the safer option might be more difficult than you expect. The same might be true of elderly parents moving in with adult children: What if the choice is between hiring a home health aide who is only working at one home, versus moving in with adult children whose workplace puts them at a higher risk for exposure?
Before making any plans to quaran-team, it’s important to think about what the alternatives might be, and to assess the relative risks of all the possibilities.
Have a plan for if someone gets sick
Before making any decisions about quaran-teaming, it is essential to formulate a plan for what to do in the event someone gets sick. Although this possibility is not a pleasant one, it’s absolutely essential—one sick member of the household puts everyone else at risk.
If one member of the quaran-team develops symptoms, will they be prompt about getting tested, or will they shrug it off as allergies or a cold?
“People need to talk frankly about testing,” Long says.
If someone does develop symptoms, what measures will they take to keep others from getting sick? Will they isolate themselves from the rest of the household—and if so, how? Depending on the size and layout of your home, isolating one member could be tricky.
Quaran-teaming could help address long-term needs in a way that is safer than the alternatives, but, as with everything, it’s an option that must be weighed carefully. So talk it over, consider your options, and make an informed decision about whether to proceed or not.
Rachel Fairbank is a freelance science writer based in Texas. When she is not writing, she can be found spending time with her family, or at her local boxing gym.