Sorry to Burst Your Quarantine Bubble

Pod means something different to everyone, and that’s a problem.

A network of red, orange, and yellow circles
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Updated at 5:06 p.m. ET on December 2, 2020.

Americans’ social lifelines are beginning to fray. As the temperature drops and the gray twilight arrives earlier each day, comfortably mingling outside during the pandemic is getting more difficult across much of the country. For many people, it’s already impossible.

To combat the loneliness of winter, some of us might be tempted to turn to pods, otherwise known as bubbles. The basic idea is that people who don’t live together can still spend time together indoors, as long as their pod stays small and exclusive. And pods aren’t just for the winter: Since March, parents have formed child-care bubbles. Third graders have been assigned to learning pods. Some NBA teams were in a bubble for months. A July survey of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent said they were in a bubble.

In theory, a bubble is meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus by trapping it in small groups of people and preventing it from jumping out. “The goal here with an infectious agent like SARS-CoV-2 is that you want to try and not give it hosts,” Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “That’s the name of the game.” Earlier this year, researchers modeled the best ways to flatten the curve by limiting social interactions and found that having people interact with only the same few contacts over and over again was the most effective approach.

But the details of how exactly to go about podding can be hard to pin down. The answers to some basic questions—how many people should be in a bubble? what’s okay for the members of a pod to do together?—are still unclear. For example, Beth McGraw, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, suggests including 10 or fewer people who live in just a handful of households, but she and all of the experts I spoke with for this story emphasized that there’s no magic number that makes a group safe or unsafe.

Bubbles might sound great—you can have your friends and your safety too!—but they don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to. Some pods are enormous. Some are open to an untold number of people’s germs through contacts of contacts (of contacts of contacts of contacts). “I think there’s leakage in a lot of people’s pods,” Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, told me. Earlier this month, a New York Times columnist examined the ties in his bubble and found that he was connected to more than 100 people—and that’s just whom he was able to trace.*

No public-health scheme is perfect, and we will need to layer as many of them as we can in order to survive the pandemic. But with pods, the country hasn’t even settled on a shared definition. If we do not reach a consensus on best bubbling practices soon, we risk blasting a hole in one layer of our armor and opening ourselves up as a nation to even more unnecessary sickness and death.

This month, I spoke with five Americans about their pandemic pods. I reached out to them because they had talked in local media or on Twitter about their bubbles. Their strategies are by no means reflective of the entire country’s experience, but even within this small sample of middle-aged city dwellers and suburbanites, their behaviors were shockingly dissimilar. The deeper I probed, the more meaningless the terms pod and bubble seemed.

Everyone was on more or less the same page as to the basics of the arrangement: Pod members interact with one another indoors without masks for extended periods of time, and do not do so with people outside the pod. But beyond that, they described practices that in some cases bore little resemblance to one another.

Three of the bubbles I heard about are closed: No one on the inside has close contact with people on the outside, so with the exception of encounters in grocery stores and other public places, everyone knows exactly how many people they’re exposed to. John Skvasik, a 41-year-old librarian who lives in suburban Cleveland, is in a three-person pod with his 70-year-old mother and his uncle. (Skvasik spends 32 hours a week in the library, but he and his co-workers are all masked.) Stacy Selby, a 40-year-old who lives in Seattle and uses they/them pronouns, is in a 10-person bubble with the extended family of the children they nanny. Innosanto Nagara, a 50-year-old graphic designer and children’s-book author in Oakland, California, formed a “germ pod” of 16 with his wife and kids, his mother-in-law, and three other families who live on the same property.

Other pods aren’t so self-contained. Jen Angel, a 45-year-old who lives in Oakland and owns a bakery (she was mixing vanilla-buttercream icing while we talked), has adopted a different strategy with her six housemates. Each of them is allowed to interact indoors and unmasked with a couple of their “most important people.” But there are no limits on the number of people those contacts see, or who those contacts’ contacts can mix with. Angel and her housemates meet weekly to go over the pod rules and map out everyone’s contacts and contacts’ contacts. As of last week, their most recent map included 35 people, and that didn’t include the unknown number of more distantly connected contacts.

The podders I spoke with also had very different standards for rule-making and communication. Angel’s house, for example, has a Google Doc of agreements (“wash your hands as soon as you enter the house,” “immediately report exposures or symptoms to the rest of the pod”). Selby’s nannying contract includes a list of permitted activities. But some groups don’t have formal agreements at all. Sue Loh, a 44-year-old programmer and software developer who lives outside Seattle, told me that she considers her children’s nanny to be part of her household (she prefers household to pod or bubble because her family and her nanny are interacting for practical, not social, reasons). But Loh hasn’t asked her nanny or her nanny’s family to “limit their behavior at all,” she said, because “we just know from her own behavior that it’s probably not any more risk than we’re already taking.”

By any strict definition, Loh’s and Angel’s groups are not bubbles at all, because they’re not closed networks. Open pods aren’t useless, especially if everyone is good about wearing masks, but they’re still riskier than a self-contained pod, no matter how pandemic-conscious members are in the rest of their life. “As soon as you sort of break your bubble, the connections can be infinite. And this is how [the virus] spreads,” McGraw, of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said.

The leakiness might be even more dangerous when bubble buddies don’t realize it’s a problem. “We get into trouble when people maybe think they’re in a pod, but some recommendation is being violated,” Meghan Moran, an associate professor of health, behavior, and society at Johns Hopkins, told me. That could lead to “a false sense of security,” further endangering people in the group. In other words, not only do some pods keep their members safer than others, but the very premise of safety can also put pod members at risk.

Why, then, aren’t we all keeping our pods closed tight? Some variation in how Americans form their pods is unavoidable and even healthy. Local transmission rates, for example, can be used to inform best practices, and people in different living and work situations will come up with different solutions to the problem of how to socialize in a pandemic. But inconsistent or nonexistent messaging is undeniably playing a role in the confusion. For a concept that’s so important and widespread, health experts and the government have given remarkably little direct advice to the public.

When I checked the CDC’s website for official resources on how to safely form a pandemic pod, I came up empty. (The agency did not respond when I asked whether such resources existed.) There are no guidelines to be found on the White House’s website or President-elect Joe Biden’s. Compare the treatment of the pod concept in the United States with that in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used the word bubble in a briefing on March 24, and where the government’s coronavirus alert system clearly delineates what Kiwis should do with their bubbles at different restriction levels.

The timing of Americans’ pivot to bubbles could also be a factor in our general confusion. When Ardern started talking about the strategy, New Zealand was preparing for winter in the Southern Hemisphere and needed to deal with the imminent threat posed by the indoors. But, as the experts I spoke with explained, in the U.S., the public-health guidance since the spring has generally shifted from an abstinence mindset of shunning the company of anyone you don’t live with to a focus on keeping your distance outdoors.

Bubble and pod have also run into the same communication pitfalls as social distancing, quarantine, and a host of other new and reappropriated terms this year. Inventing new words or phrases is always a gamble: Their creators have relative control over their meaning, but the verbiage might not catch on. (When I asked UNC’s Robinson to think of a new, alternative phrase to replace pod, she thought for a moment before answering, “Closed behavioral network is not catchy. This is why academics are not good at making things up.”)

Pod and bubble “resonate because they conjure up some kind of image for us,” Moran said, “which causes us to maybe assume we know what it means. But without that deeper level of understanding, different folks may be using the same term in very different ways, which can lead to misunderstandings.” Such mistaken assumptions are why Robinson prefers bubble to pod: She said that bubble evokes a more concrete image of a closed object with a defined inside and outside, whereas pod is more ambiguous.

Under ideal circumstances, anyone trying to teach the American public a new health concept would follow a long, iterative process of creation, testing, and review. This is generally easier to do if you’re trying to address chronic health conditions, rather than a virus that is killing 1,500 people a day. But the coronavirus has presented public-health experts with the worst of both worlds: They need pandemic-fatigued Americans to adopt lasting behaviors for the remaining months until a vaccine can be distributed, but they can’t test their catchphrases as thoroughly as they’d like. This tension could explain some of the communication failures around bubbles: Messages that aren’t as carefully planned and tested as their creators would like have less of a chance of reaching—and inspiring helpful behaviors in—their audience.

With winter fast approaching, Americans need pods now more than ever. But pods have also never been more dangerous. As with so many efforts to rein in the pandemic, a bubble strategy would be much easier to implement if viral spread were at least relatively under control. Instead, new cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. are higher than they’ve ever been, and deaths are also poised to break this spring’s horrifying records. According to Althoff, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, the higher transmission rates are, the more likely people are to get infected, and the higher the chances that the virus sneaks its way into any given pod.

Still, podding has its benefits, even when implemented less than perfectly and in less than perfect environments. Forming a pod can be an impetus for having conversations about what constitutes acceptable COVID-19 risk within a household or family. And those conversations can make the burden of navigating winter a bit lighter on everyone. “A hard thing about the pandemic is the feeling that you have to negotiate every interaction with someone, and that’s really exhausting mentally,” Robinson said. Talking about pod rules is a way to pre-negotiate, so that when you interact with people, you can focus more attention on the pleasure of their company.

Talking about pods and bubbles might seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but it is, at the very least, a starting point for considering the consequences of our behaviors. As Robinson said, it’s “a chance to acknowledge that our dependence on each other has changed.” None of us should be shamed for relying on people we don’t live with, or for wanting to maintain our emotional health. We need one another. But we also need one another to exercise caution and restraint so that thousands more will not die in the name of preserving the nation’s social well-being.

* This article previously misstated when a New York Times column about bubbles was published.