At this point, we've all been living in a pandemic for over half a year now, but there's still so much left that's unprecedented. While some of us have settled into our own quarantine routines, heading into the winter and holiday season amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is brand new territory. Many people have been relying on the great outdoors to social distance and see their friends and loved ones, but in places where the weather is getting colder, things will inevitably have to change—and the fear of a long winter ahead with no in-person time with those you love is a chilling thought.
So, many of us are now wondering how we can keep seeing friends as the weather gets colder, how we can create a coronavirus-safe "pod," and if it's okay to spend time with people (outside of those you live with) indoors. In addition to the heightened anxiety about where to go from here, the changing seasons also bring about the risk of catching the flu or a cold. So, we tapped medical professionals to answer our burning questions and give us advice for how to best minimize the risk of coronavirus without entirely giving up our social lives in the coming months.
1. Keep yourself healthy
Your health should always be number one. Before deciding whether or not you can spend time with other people, make sure you are maintaining every part of your health as best as you can. Aside from taking coronavirus-safe measures (maintaining six feet of distance from others, washing your hands frequently, and wearing a mask), Dr. Eva Beaulieu, board-certified internal medicine hospitalist, recommends doing the following as the pillars of good health: Sleep well, drink plenty of water, manage stress, and eat a well-balanced diet. Research shows that these lifestyle factors can help keep your immune system healthy, which, in turn, makes the body more capable of fighting off illness.
Another health precaution nearly every doctor can agree on? Get your flu shot. In addition to coronavirus-related recommendations, Dr. Jake Deutsch, a board-certified physician in emergency medicine says, "getting vaccinated and preventing the flu is probably the most important recommendation for the cold and flu season." A small study of 58 people from the U.K. found that having flu and coronavirus at the same time can significantly increase your risk of death—so getting a flu shot is a simple way to minimize that dangerous possibility.
2. Find ways to stay outdoors as long as possible
Before considering spending indoor time with people outside of those you live with, make sure you've considered all your options for spending time outdoors. This is because, according to a Japanese study of 110 cases, the risk of getting coronavirus is nearly 20 times lower outdoors than indoors. Indoors are riskier for catching coronavirus since there are less ventilation and exchange of potentially contaminated air. So, unless the forecast shows freezing temperatures or otherwise inclement weather, see if it's tolerable to bundle up in a warm coat, grab some cozy blankets, and choose to gather for a socially distanced hang outside.
If you're lucky enough to have an outdoor space of your own—a backyard, patio, or rooftop—there are some ways to try to extend the season for outdoor gatherings. Try investing in a fire pit (like this best seller from Amazon) or an outdoor space heater (another best seller from Amazon) to warm up your outdoor space as the temperatures start to drop. You can even ask other members of your pod to help split the cost, if that feels fair. (Tip: If you live in a big city like New York and have a back patio, deck, or rooftop, make sure to check your city's fire safety laws before investing in an outdoor heater or fire pit.) If you don't have your own outdoor space, try to bring your blankets and cozy essentials to a park or another public outdoor space for a small, socially distanced gathering.
It's important to understand, that, although low, there still is a risk of catching coronavirus outdoors. So, you should still be practicing safety measures, like wearing masks and staying six feet apart. Dr. Harry Oken, internal medicine specialist, professor of medicine at University of Maryland, and member of Persona Nutrition’s Medical Advisory Board adds, half-joking-half-not, that "people are generally not so good about understanding what social distancing means, and it's actually worth it to take out a measuring tape and show people what six feet is." Since coronavirus can spread through respiratory airborne droplets, six feet is the minimum distance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people stay apart to prevent the spread.
3. Weigh your risks mindfully
The safest option, of course, is to not spend in-person and indoor time with people outside of those you live with. However, Dr. Beaulieu says, "you must weigh the risks of exposure to the virus with the risks social isolation poses to your mental and emotional health." According to a 2020 study in The Journals of Gerontology, social isolation is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia by 40%, as well as mental health consequences such as depression and anxiety. So, if you are concerned about your mental health deteriorating from sustained social isolation—especially if you suffer from seasonal depression—it's okay to consider options for seeing friends or loved ones this winter.
Dr. Deutsch agrees that it's reasonable to consider safe ways to see friends during the winter as the pandemic continues. "Given the length of the pandemic and the resources with getting testing now, this is something that could be helpful for people to have a little bit of normalcy, but it has to be done with some really smart precautions in mind." So, if you are going to establish a COVID-safe pod (a small group of people you agree to spend in-person time with during the pandemic), make sure you determine clear guidelines for everyone in your group to follow.
4. Establish the rules of your "pod"
Whether you've already established a pod, or you're planning to create one, one thing is for sure: You need to be clear on the rules. To make sure it's as safe as possible for your pod to spend time together, you need to first ensure that everyone is taking the same precautions when you're apart. Dr. Oken recommends that everyone in your pod take a pledge to stay safe. This pledge, he explains, "means you're not going out and about, you're not having a lot of contact with other people when you do have to go out, and you're following the three rules—social distancing by at least six feet, washing your hands frequently when you're out of your safe zone, and wearing face masks."
Your pod should also discuss decisions on things like going out to eat at restaurants, using public transportation, and seeing members outside of your pod.
As Dr. Deutsch explains, if you are not taking precautions when outside of your pod, then you are essentially going to break your pod's safety seal. He also encourages that everyone be straightforward and have these specific conversations early on so that nothing gets overlooked. "There should be very good examples of what to do and what not to do, because you might be 'podding' with somebody, but you're assuming one thing, and they're assuming another," he says.
Dr. Deutsch also adds that, if anyone in your group isn't willing to have these conversations about guidelines, "then I definitely wouldn't proceed with podding with them, because that makes me suspect that they're not going to uphold their part of the bargain."
Dr. Beaulieu recommends limiting a pod to six to eight people. "The more people, the more risks," she adds.
If you and your pod decide to spend time indoors together, it's recommended to still take all the same coronavirus safety measures as you should elsewhere. "Set your space up with social distancing in mind, check temperatures, have lots of hand sanitizers around, have your guests wear masks at all times when not eating or drinking, use disposable plates and utensils, and disinfect surfaces often with an EPA-approved disinfectant," she says.
5. Ventilate your space as much as possible
Dr. Beaulieu explains that, as studies have shown, coronavirus has a much higher rate of spreading indoors, "largely because indoor ventilation tends to recycle and move around germ-filled air that can transmit viruses from one person to a room full of people."
So, if you are planning to invite people into your home, do whatever you can to mitigate the potential for spread. Depending on how cold it is outside, simply opening the windows or a door to the outdoors can help circulate the air. Dr. Oken also recommends getting a HEPA air purifier (like this best seller from Amazon) for your space and running it for about an hour before any company arrives to help exchange and clean the air.
6. If something doesn't feel safe, cancel your plans
No matter how much you've been looking forward to seeing a certain someone or group of people, Dr. Oken's rule is simple: "If you have to question it, you should cancel." This means that if you or anyone in your pod is starting to experience symptoms or has reason to believe they've been exposed to coronavirus, then you should cancel any plans to be in a shared space—because it's so much better to be safe than sorry. This doesn't mean you can't see your pod in the future, but just that you should hold off until you can all be more certain that no one has contracted or been exposed to coronavirus.
7. Get tested only when you have a "bona fide" exposure
As testing has become more accessible across the country, there have been some varying opinions on exactly when and how often people should get tested. With more testing available, some may believe that getting tested regularly is good practice to ensure you aren't unknowingly spreading the virus, and to allow more peace of mind when planning to spend time with others. However, Dr. Oken cautions against getting tested unless you have a "bona fide exposure," meaning that you have legitimate reason to believe you've been exposed to coronavirus. His reasoning is because, by getting tested at a health clinic or another testing site, you are putting yourself in an environment in which there's a higher likelihood of being exposed to people who are positive. Plus, he adds, "you're consuming a consumable (the test) that is still in short supply to some degree."
Dr. Oken's advice aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current guidelines, which maintain that not everyone should get tested. The CDC recommends that those who should include: "people who have symptoms of coronavirus, people who have had close contact (within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes) with someone with confirmed coronavirus, and people who have been asked or referred to get testing by their healthcare provider or local or state health department."
It's also important to remember that, if you do get tested, a negative coronavirus test result isn't your ticket to start living restriction-free. A negative test result just tells you that you (probably) are not infected with coronavirus, but that doesn't change your likelihood of catching it if you don't continue safe precautions. Plus, if tested too early after infection, there's a good chance of getting a false negative test, and some research has shown that the incubation period can last as long as 14 days. So, if you believe you've been exposed to the virus, it's best to self isolate and wait at least five to six days to get tested—unless you are having symptoms and need medical care prior.
So, while everyone has to make decisions for themselves, don't forget that we are still in a pandemic and taking safety precautions will help protect yourself and everyone around you.