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How To Form a Pandemic Pod

Illustration of people standing apart under glass baubles.

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Key Takeaways

  • If you want to form a pandemic pod, you need to be ready to balance the advantages of relaxed safety protocols with the risks. Pods are not the right choice for everyone.
  • Among the most important elements of a successful pod is finding the right people to include. You have to choose people who are on the same page as you about safety. Remember: you're taking on the risk of not just the members of your pod, but those of their households as well.
  • Communication is a crucial part of a safe and successful pod.

The COVID-19 pandemic really took hold in the United States just as the weather was warming up in many parts of the country. For most of the spring, summer, and fall, we were able to walk with friends in the park or share a meal outdoors—albeit socially distanced and with face masks.

With winter creeping in, many people will be denied these small pleasures (unless they can brave the bitter cold). That, combined with Zoom fatigue, has prompted many families to form social pods or "pandemic pods."

While a "pandemic pod" might be an option for some people, it isn't the right choice for everyone. Here's what you need to know about forming a pandemic pod, and how to do so safely.

What Is a Pandemic Pod?

A pod is a social bubble formed by individuals or families who abide by an agreed-upon set of rules that allows them to spend time together with somewhat loosened pandemic safety protocols.

From an epidemiological standpoint, a pod is a small group of people choosing to share risk for work, academic, or social reasons. “You take on the risk of the people you bring into your pod,” Preeti Malani, MD, chief health officer and professor of medicine, division of infectious diseases, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tells Verywell. 

That’s not to say that you should necessarily steer clear of the risks. After all, “there are economic risks and academic risks to completely isolating. People can also get lonely,” Malani says. If you choose to form a pod, you're balancing these risks.

Pod Benefits and Risks

With thoughtful agreed-upon safety rules in place, podding might allow kids to have playdates. Workers could collaborate more freely. Close friends or relatives outside of the core-family unit could help with child care, or share a holiday dinner.

To varying degrees that are agreed upon by members of the pod, these interactions can take place without the typical pandemic safety measures such as masks and social distancing.

If taking part in social activities with less safety measure in place sounds too risky—whether it's beyond your comfort level in general, because the infection rates are high in your community, or because you have someone in your household that is at high-risk for contracting the disease—then podding isn’t for you.

Preeti Malani, MD

You take on the risk of the people you bring into your pod.

— Preeti Malani, MD

As we head into the long winter months, Malani says we “can still find ways to connect." First of all, put your mask on if you plan to be around others. Once that measure is in place, you might meet in the garage with the door open or take a quick walk if it's not too chilly. In general, it's safer to be outside than inside–so dress warmly!

Choosing Pod Members

If you’re craving the real-life human interaction of pre-pandemic days—and you are willing to put up with some risks—forming a pod might be worth a try. It will require some effort—starting with finding the right people to pod with.

When it comes to choosing pod members, you need to be selective. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

People You Enjoy Being With

While academic or work pods are created with a shared goal in mind, social pods exist for enjoying the company of others. That said, you want to make sure that you are in a pod with people that you do enjoy being with!

To reduce your risk, only participate in one pod at a time and limit close contact with people outside the pod.

People Who Take Similar Precautions

Happy pod members are on the same page when it comes to what is safe and what is not. For example, some households wipe down their groceries while others do not. Some families have kept kids at home for remote learning while others have let the kids go back to school for in-person classes.

If you find it hard to understand another pod member's reasoning for adhering to certain safety measures (or not adhering to them), you should not be in a pod with them.

“To make the pod work, you have to be selective,” Alison Drake, MPH, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells Verywell.

By choosing people you agree with about all possible scenarios, you’ll avoid conflict, confusion, and hard feelings. 

People You Trust

Discussing issues of what is considered safe and what is not can be a complex, emotional task. If you have any doubt that your potential pod members will respect and abide by what the group decides is safe, it's a sign you should not be in a pod with them.

The reverse is also true: Pod with people who trust you. It would be stressful if you felt as though the other people in your pod were constantly second-guessing you. 

People With Similar Risk

Most people would prefer to pod with people who they feel are in similar day-to-day risk situations. For example, all the parents in the group work from home, and their kids are doing distance-learning instead of going to school. Or, all individuals work in a hospital and follow the same safety precautions.

However, perceptions of which jobs are safest are not necessarily accurate. Healthcare workers, for example, tend to carefully mitigate their risk, and therefore might not be as high-risk as a less-careful person who works in an office.

"It’s not the job. It’s the person," Malani says. While you should let your comfort level guide you, it's also important that you do not fall prey to a false sense of security. 

People Who Do Not Have High-Risk People In Their Household

If you or potential members of your pod live with older adults or people who have health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness if they were to get COVID-19 (such as diabetes, obesity, or lung or heart disease), the consequences of a safety breach in the pod would be much higher.

You bring the risk you take on by being in a pod home with you. If that is not something you're comfortable with, you might decide not to pod. You could also choose to pod in a more stringent way, such as by wearing masks outdoors (that might not seem much different from not podding, but for those accustomed to only Zooming, it could be a big improvement).

A pod is only as safe as its least-safe member.

Elements of a Safe Pod

“Every pod comes up with its own set of rules and how strict they want to be,” Drake says. “Some might decide that members can go to the grocery store only once a week. Others feel that it’s OK as long as they wear a mask.”

Pods can differ in their policies, too. For example, learning pods might still require mask-wearing. What all pods have in common, though, is that each requires open communication and a deep commitment to keeping its members safe and happy.

Limit Size

When you join a pod, you take on the risk of not just the other members of the pod, but the people that they live and interact with. Your risk, as well as the risk you pose to others, is already much larger than you think. If someone were to test positive for COVID-19, contact tracing would be easier to manage.

Alison Drake, MPH, PhD

There is no magic number for a pod, but the one rule is that the smaller the better.

— Alison Drake, MPH, PhD

For the same reason, you should participate in only one pod at a time. Assuming that your pod is relaxing the typical social distancing and masking rules, then the more people, the more the uncertainty—and the bigger the risk.

“There is no magic number for a pod,” Drake says. “But the one rule is that the smaller the better.” 

Plan Ahead

If you’d like to pod with a household by a certain date—say, you and your family would like to spend New Year’s with another family—both families should quarantine for 14 days before that date. Ideally, every person would then take a COVID-19 test just before the gathering date (if tests are available and not in short supply).

Even if you all test negative, you should take steps to mitigate your risk further before podding, as well as after the gathering for everyone's safety—especially if you want to continue to pod. According to the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these steps would include wearing masks in public, maintaining social distance, frequent and proper handwashing, and avoiding crowded areas.

Malani says that it also makes sense to steer clear of indoor dining, given that ventilation is limited compared to being outside, and it’s impossible to eat with masks on.

Set an End Date

Depending on how often you meet—for example, once a week or a month or more—it’s helpful to think of podding as something finite. That way, you can “try it out” and gracefully exit if it’s not working out—or continue if it's working well for everyone.

If you decide to pod with another family after leaving a pod, remember that you’d need to quarantine for two weeks before joining them.

Make a Written Agreement

While putting a set of rules on paper might seem unnecessarily formal, particularly among close friends or family, it's an important component of a successful pod. “It helps people determine what the rules are,” Drake says. The rules should clearly state what members should and should not do within and outside of the pod.

For example, beyond the CDC guidelines of masking and social distancing in public, pod members might (and probably should) decide that eating inside a restaurant is not allowed. However, members might agree that it's OK to dine outside.

Pods might decide that if a member takes a flight, they must quarantine before rejoining. A pod might also agree that people will not travel—or, that if they must, they would not return to the pod.

With a thought-out written document, no one will have to ask “is it OK if…” or “what should I do when...” You have a consistent set of rules, no matter who asks. 

The actual process of drawing up a contract pushes members to think through the potential scenarios that could come up and discuss what the expectations are for pod members. It also provides an opportunity for people who decide that they are not in agreement to bow out.

Open and Honest Communication

Communication is one of the most vital aspects of a safe and healthy pod. Members should quickly let the rest of the pod know if they’ve put themselves at higher risk than what was initially agreed upon—for instance, they had to take the subway when the pod had decided everyone would avoid it.

If you feel that a pod rule is too strict and you plan to skirt around it, you should not be in the pod.

In these circumstances, some pods might feel that it's safe to continue to pod after the situation has been evaluated. Other pods might need to have stricter rules in place to keep everyone feeling safe. For example, not informing the pod of the "transgression" would be seen as a violation of the agreement.

Know When to Enforce Rules—or Stop Podding

As the pandemic situation changes, your pod rules might also need to evolve. If your community spread rises dramatically, you might consider adding more safety measures, such as wearing a mask within the pod or meeting only outdoors.

A pod is only as safe as its least-safe member. Beyond the pod's agreed-upon rules, there are certain situations that should require a break. For example, you should stop podding if someone in your pod has come within 6 feet of a person diagnosed with COVID-19, or if someone was in a poorly ventilated room with a person diagnosed with COVID-19.

What This Means For You

If you are interested in forming a pod, you need to be selective about whom you include in your pod, that you agree with other members on what (beyond the CDC guidelines) is safe for your pod.

Wait to get together with your pod until everyone has quarantined for 14 days and (if resources are available) tested negative for COVID-19.

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Article Sources
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