As much of 2020 has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, necessitating social distancing and at times full-blown quarantine, many people have not physically seen some loved ones for nearly a year. While officials discourage large gatherings, and governments prohibit them, health officials say that creating a small “social bubble” or “social pod” can be a way to contribute to one’s mental health while protecting everyone’s physical health. 

“The way we like to think of it is that we are slightly broadening the social sphere without spreading the virus,” said Jason Elliott, a communications specialist at the Thomas Jefferson Health District, a district within Virginia’s overall Department of Health. 

According to Elliott, a social bubble in the time of the pandemic is when a small group of friends or family members outside of each other’s households agree to limit their contact to only each other — with exception for necessary trips like to grocery stores or pharmacies. The goal is to have a social network while mitigating the risk of the coronavirus. 

“We need for our emotional and mental health to be around other people,” said Laura Lee Wight, a coordinator with the Central Shenandoah Health District, a neighboring district to TJHD. 

She added the significance of “really thinking about carefully choosing who we are around.”

While she notes that given the current nation and statewide spikes in cases, not seeing anyone outside of our households or further restricting our social bubbles for the time being is best — meeting people masked and outside is another option — and that however people create their bubbles is up to their personal comfort levels. 

If choosing to create a bubble, she stressed the importance of bubble members only physically seeing each other while keeping interactions with other friends or family virtual for the time being.

While there are no standard health guidelines to establish or maintain a social bubble, officials urge them to be small — less than 10 or five people total. 

“That doesn’t mean socializing with everyone that you know,” Elliott cautions. “Once a bubble is established, that should be maintained. … If we make multiple bubbles and jump from each one, then we’re basically ignoring that point in the first place it becomes ineffective.”

“It needs to be a tight circle of contact within a social group and those are individuals who you know take extra steps to be safe and to not be around other people who aren’t in your bubble,” Wight explained. 

Elliott said communication and evaluation is important for people looking to create a social bubble. He suggests interested groups thoroughly devise their own set of rules and guidelines as they make promises to each other. 

“Don’t include anyone who doesn’t take precautions seriously. If someone is not in-line or has the same needs or desires as you, it’s OK to not include them,” he explained. “Make sure that you keep the same people in that bubble because every person you add to the bubble, adds to the risk.”

Still, he said, minimizing contact with people outside of one’s own household is still the best practice.  

“The one thing that’s most important to remember throughout all of this is that minimizing contact right now is still best,” Elliott said. 

He said it’s also important to maintain physical distance, wear masks and frequently wash hands and use sanitizer even while seeing those within your social bubble.  

With the colder months leading to people spending more time indoors, he stressed the significance of ventilation. In recent months, outdoor space has allowed people and businesses to more safely experience small gatherings, and as gatherings move indoors, communities nationwide and statewide are experiencing spikes in cases and hospitalizations. 

Elliott said if people must meet with their chosen bubble indoors, they should keep masks on and have a fan running and windows open to help with airflow. Meanwhile, Wight said people within the bubble should be transparent about how much exposure each person has between socializing to determine who is more comfortable with where and how they are spending time together.

“It all comes down to how much risk you’re willing to take on to be around other people,” Wight said. 

While COVID vaccines are expected to roll out soon to health workers tending to COVID patients and those in long term care facilities, it will take time for widespread distribution of the vaccine. Officials urge people to continue making efforts to mitigate spread of the virus. 

“This is a fluid situation that is more of a marathon than a sprint,” Elliott said.