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Is It Worth Creating a Winter 'Pod'?

If you're finally ready to commit to being alone together, here's how to do so safely

group of adults cooking together

Gary Burchell/Getty Images

En español | As you wait for your turn to get vaccinated, you may be wondering if it's worth creating a pod to ride out the long, lonely days of winter.

A pod, or as some call it, a “quaranteam,” is “basically a group of people who don't need to mask and socially distance when they're together because they've agreed to follow certain rules and guidelines when they're apart,” explains Aaron Glatt, M.D., chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai, South Nassau Hospital.

For older adults in particular, pods can both pose risks and serve a significant need: A recent National Poll on Healthy Aging survey of more than 2,000 people ages 50 to 80 found that more than half felt isolated from others — that's more than double the percent who reported feeling that way the year before. “It's psychologically taxing to be alone all the time,” says Peter Katona, M.D., professor of medicine and public health and chairman of the Infection Control Working Group at UCLA, who notes that without in-person socialization, we're all at risk for depression.

How to choose wisely

If you decide to create such a group yourself, you'll want to pick podmates who are like-minded about the pandemic. If you haven't seen your grandchildren since March, synching up with a couple who spend every weekend with extended family won't be wise. One plus about waiting so long to create a pod is that you have months of pandemic behavior to go on.

Schedule a video chat and fire away with questions to confirm how closely potential podmates comply with COVID-19 recommendations: Do they wear masks all the time outside the house? How about their adult children? How much shopping do they do and under what circumstances? Do they dine in restaurants? Do they have medical needs that will require frequent appointments? Does anyone come into their house regularly, like a housekeeper or a health aid of any kind?

While there are no right or wrong answers, it's important that their risk tolerance aligns with yours. And while anyone can be part of a pod, expanding your circle does raise the risk of contracting the virus. If your age or health status puts you at higher risk of dying from the virus, weigh your decision carefully. And keep in mind that the person with the highest risk of getting the virus determines the risk for the entire pod.

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Everyone involved also needs to be prepared to isolate and be symptom-free for two weeks before you begin to get together indoors. Then, everyone must follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Wear masks in public and any time you're around people who aren't part of your pod, stay at least 6 feet away from others, avoid crowds and wash your hands often. You may want to establish that you'll create a pod for two or three weeks, then evaluate how it's going.

When in doubt, keep it small

While there's no fixed number of how many people make this kind of social group safe, the smaller the pod, the lower the risk. Start with one other household, then see if you want to add another. Going beyond 8 people starts to be too big to realistically keep contagion risks low, experts say.

Remember that you must consider everyone in your household part of the pod — even members who don't actively socialize. If you live with your elderly mother, for example, she's taking on the same risks as everyone in the pod, even if she never leaves your house.

"Instead of collections of people, think of pods as being different collections of bubbles,” says Katona. If you're in a bubble with your husband, your mother and your teenage daughter, you can't separate that group, he notes.

What if the bubble bursts?

"Anytime someone doesn't follow the safety protocols agreed upon by the pod, the pod is no longer safe,” says Glatt. For example, if the group vowed not to go inside anyone else's house and someone ducks into a neighbor's, even when masked and only for a few minutes, they need to come clean. One person's behavior impacts the health of everyone else on the “quaranteam."

If someone does stray from the guidelines, not all is necessarily lost. “Have that person take a two-week break and if they remain asymptomatic and agree to follow the pod rules from then on, welcome them back,” suggests Glatt. Or, if you decide the group isn't right for you, that's OK too. Explain to your pod members that you've decided to isolate yourself until you can socialize without worry. “I like to think that marriage is for life, but pods are not,” Glatt adds.

Finally, if anyone in your pod feels sick or tests positive for the virus, the entire pod needs to follow CDC guidelines. Stay home and away from others for 14 days after your last contact with the person who's sick, and watch for fever, cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms.