As social ‘bubbles’ expand, health experts warn against gatherings


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Thanksgiving may look different this year, as people opt for smaller gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. But health experts find that even the most limited private gatherings may not be as safe as assumed.

“You’re only as healthy as your riskiest friend,” said Crater District Health Departments Epidemiologist Senior E. Katrina Saphrey, MPH. “I could be doing…washing my hands appropriately, wearing my mask when I leave my home or when I know I’m going to run into people, but if everyone that you gather with is not adhering to all of those prevention strategies, then you’re not as healthy as you think you may be.”

At the onset of the pandemic, Saphrey says people were listening to science. But as months have passed and response efforts have evolved, so-called “COVID fatigue” is setting in.

“We’re seeing that people are becoming a bit more lax in what they think would be protective against the virus, and so they are now coming together and having parties at home,” Saphrey said. “And we are seeing transmission occurring in those sorts of settings.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommend that people wear a mask, maintain a distance of at least six feet from those outside the immediate household, and wash their hands.

AP Illustration / Peter Hamlin

“With the holidays coming up, with Thanksgiving, people want to see their families, so I think it’s our job to try to keep reinforcing those messages and how critical it is to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your family,” said Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Epidemiology Program Manager Seth Levine, MPH. “I think knowing that it’s a marathon and not a sprint is hard, but it’s reality.”

Health experts also urge people to consider alternative Thanksgiving activities, such as hosting a virtual Thanksgiving meal with friends and family or preparing traditional dishes that can be dropped off for others to enjoy in a way that does not involve contact.

“You’re putting yourself more at risk with the more people you have interactions with outside of your household, so I think it’s challenging,” Lavine said. “But my recommendation would be to keep that circle of people you have interactions with during the holidays as small as possible, at least this year.”

Even those who think they are keeping their circle of interaction small may not realize how many people they see on a daily basis are also part of another person’s circle of interaction.

“Some people are strict on who they let into their homes and humble abodes, and then others have definitely opened up their friend groups,” Saphrey said. “I think an interesting point is to think about people being named a close contact multiple times throughout this pandemic, because of being exposed numerous different times. So it is an interesting perspective to think about with knowing that the social bubbles have expanded now and that exposures may continue to increase because of that.”

Saphrey says, with the contact tracing efforts that have now been going on for months, those who test positive for COVID-19 are either cautious of going out in public or have come into contact with and possibly exposed several people.

“Some people give us a list of 10 to 15 [contacts], and some people are like, ‘I stay home. I’m not in contact with anybody,’” Saphrey said. “So we do see both ends of the spectrum.”

Contact tracers with the VDH work to notify individuals who might have been exposed to COVID-19.

“Our training from the outset is important for contact tracers, and we stress certain elements of empathy, sensitivity, rapport,” Levine said. “We have to stress confidentiality, as well, that the information that they provide to use is going to remain with us.”

Levine says technology has made a major impact on the VDH’s ability to keep up with contact tracing and exposure notifications.

Sara Alert is a monitoring system for close contacts that is automated, so we would establish an initial phone call, typically, with the close contacts to interview them, collect information, and then try to enroll them in this automated system,” Levine said. “It alleviates some of that burden from the public health department, having to contact them on a daily basis and maybe not get ahold of them and repeat phone calls, which is labor-intensive, and it also adds some flexibility to the individuals to choose the manner in which they want to get contacted.”

Saphrey urges anyone who receives a call from VDH to answer the phone.

“I’m very proud to be a part of this response from the local health department standpoint, and everyone is working so hard, and we know that the public and our staff are a bit worn out,” Saphrey said. “We’re just trying to do our jobs and make sure that we are protecting the residents in our communities.”

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