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Science and Innovations

Weekly Update On The Science Of COVID-19: Social Bubbles

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Coronavirus cases continue to surge in Arizona, while summer weather and the upcoming Fourth of July weekend tempt residents to travel and visit with family and friends. Public health experts say staying safe during the pandemic means staying home as much as possible and managing your “social bubble,” the people who you live with or frequently contact. In KNAU’s weekly update on the science of COVID-19, Melissa Sevigny speaks with infectious disease expert Paul Keim about his personal guidelines for socializing in the pandemic.  

So we’ve got a holiday weekend coming up and I know a lot of people are eager to get together with friends and family. Is there a way to do that safely?

The high risk situations are what we call the three C’s. You need to avoid closed spaces, crowded places, and you need to avoid close contact settings. And so when you meet up with anybody who’s outside of your social bubble, you need to be aware of that. You don’t want to be in close contact with them, you want to be in an open area if possible—outdoor venues are much less risky than indoor venues—and you don’t want to have too many people in those areas. An ideal thing would be if you had a dispersed gathering, and that you were outdoors, so there’s wind blowing through and diluting whatever respiratory droplets might be shed, and again, you’ve got to keep from touching other people because that’s going to be an instant way to transmit that disease.

You mentioned this idea of a social bubble. How big of a social bubble is it safe to have?

The social bubble can be large if it’s well controlled bubble. The larger the group of people gets, the harder it is to control everybody’s behavior. The whole concept of a social bubble is, everybody inside of that is responsible for everybody else’s health… In my life that social bubble is three people, my immediate family. Once we get outside those three people, we practice social distancing, we practice behaviors that help inhibit the spread of the virus, and we wear masks.

What do we know about how effective it is to wear a mask?

The studies to understand exactly how effective the masks are, are starting to coming out now, and we’re definitely coming down on the side that masks help. These masks work at two levels. The first level is to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets from somebody who is infected…. That’s coupled with the second aspect, which is if you aren’t infected and you’re wearing that mask, you’re going to cut down on the number of respiratory droplets that you’re going to get into your nose and lungs.

A question I get a lot or think about a lot is: is it safe to travel outside of the state, and if you are going to travel outside of the state, what’s the best way to do that?

When you’re trying to make a choice between driving somewhere and flying somewhere, for me at least, it comes down to how much control I have over my personal space…. For me flying right now is a nonstarter. I will drive places and I will drive even far distances rather than fly on an airplane.

What about going out and eating at a restaurant, browsing through a bookstore, do you do any of those things?

I patronize the local restaurants, I do take-out food. I want to do everything I can to keep our local businesses functioning. But eating in the restaurant a nonstarter for me right now…. We’re going to get through this eventually and then these types of activities will start up again, but right now, Arizona is experiencing an amazing surge, ICUs across the state are at 80-85 percent capacity, the curve is not going the right away.… So we have to do everything we can to slow this thing down, using whatever mechanisms we can.

Paul Keim, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

You bet, Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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