If physical distancing has shown us anything, it’s that sometimes not being with other people in person really takes a toll on mental health.
Research has actually found that, for some people, prolonged loneliness can be as harmful for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The health toll of loneliness is perhaps especially true for people who live alone, just from the simple fact that quarantine for someone with no live-in roommates, partner or family members quickly becomes social isolation.
And now that the darker, shorter days of winter have arrived, outdoor gatherings are trickier and the pandemic is ramping up again, the thought of being constantly alone can be even more depressing.
In Washington state, indoor gatherings with people outside your household are restricted until the number of COVID-19 infections starts lowering again. However, we know that, despite the risk of infection, seeing a friend or loved one is sometimes needed in order to prevent or remedy mental health struggles.
If you live alone and can get by with FaceTime chats and Zoom happy hours, that’s safest. But if you need to see another person from time to time, one safer way to do so is by forming a pandemic pod.
Pandemic pods involve making an agreement with someone you care about to meet each other (and only each other) in person. Here’s how to form a pod while minimizing risk for everyone involved.
Why form a pandemic pod?
While living alone doesn’t automatically mean someone is lonely or depressed (and it's not cool to assume so), things like physical distancing and quarantining can be harder to face by yourself.
If you live alone and are perfectly content keeping to your household of one, more power to you. If, however, you want to see people sometimes, we totally get it.
For Dr. Raouf Maoud, a primary care doctor and associate medical director of the Southeast region at UW Neighborhood Clinics, pods are a great way to get that human connection most of us need without putting yourself or others at risk. (He’s in a pod with his children.)
That’s because having close contact with one or two people, in a closed social loop, is much safer than having close contact with a bunch of your friends without knowing if they’re meeting with other people, too.
If you’re younger and live alone, you may think it’s unlikely that you’ll have severe symptoms if you catch COVID-19. While it’s less common for younger people to get really sick, the truth is they can still have bad symptoms and even lingering health impacts, and doctors still don’t know why.
“I’ve seen much younger people who have very bad disease. Chances are low, but it’s still there,” Maoud says.
What’s even more alarming is that data is starting to show that young people with few or no symptoms are now the main demographic spreading the disease to others.
How to safely form a pandemic pod
While seeing people in-person may be necessary for your mental health, it’s important to note that it’s not without some risk.
If you’re meeting people indoors, not physically distancing and not wearing masks, the chances of spreading COVID-19 are high if someone in the group happens to be sick without knowing it.
However, taking some precautions can make pods relatively safe:
Keep pods small
If you can happily spend the rest of the pandemic seeing just one other person, great. If not, try to limit your pod to just a few people.
“One rule is to have a small number of people, because you can control it more. Be strict with that. More people, more risk,” Maoud says.
Choose people you really like
Before asking someone if they want to join your pod, think about how you’ll be spending your time together. You want to form a pod with people you can have long conversations with and do everyday things with like cooking or playing a board game.
Since many common activities to do with friends, like going to concerts or bars, aren’t available now, make sure your prospective podmates are people you know you can enjoy the company of without those types of distractions.
After all, since your podmates are the only people you’ll be seeing regularly for the foreseeable future, you want to make sure you get along really well.
If you want to see your best friend and your parents that’s OK — but be sure they all belong to the same pod and follow same rules, and remember there’s more risk involved for everyone as the pod becomes bigger, Maoud says.
Set some pod rules
Before meeting in-person, you and your podmates need to agree on some ground rules.
First, if everyone in the pod hasn’t already done so, make sure each of you quarantines separately for 14 days before meeting in person, just to be safe. (That means staying home, not meeting up with other people and only running errands — with your mask on, of course — if they’re essential.)
Once you do meet up, make sure everyone is masking and staying six feet away from others when out in public and have everyone wash their hands when they come over.
It’s also important to talk about what activities you’re comfortable (or not comfortable) with everyone doing. Are you OK with pod members going into stores? Getting a haircut? Going to a restaurant and eating outdoors? What are your podmates’ concerns?
What you think is risky might not seem so to someone else, so make sure you set rules you and everyone else in the pod are comfortable with.
“Your pod has to stick to these rules, not 99%, but 100%,” Maoud says.
Think of it this way: Even if you aren’t living with your podmates, your level of exposure hanging out with them is the same as if you were roommates.
So if you wouldn’t be OK with an imaginary roommate going shopping or taking a maskless run, you shouldn’t be OK with your podmates doing those things, either.
Make honesty your policy
The pandemic is a constantly changing situation, and you may experience a scenario at any point that makes you feel a little uneasy, like a maskless person getting too close or someone coughing right next to you, or even having to go to the doctor unexpectedly.
If anything like this happens — and especially if you start feeling unwell, no matter how mild your symptoms are — it’s important to keep your podmates informed before you meet with them again in person.
“Be open about any symptoms you have. If you have an exposure, tell them and be willing to quarantine and temporarily leave the pod,” Maoud says.
Make sure everyone in the pod understands how important this is and is willing to be honest with each other.
Because the pandemic is a changing situation — scientists are still learning about the virus every day — it’s important that you and your podmates be ready to change things up if new health guidelines are released.
“The CDC just changed the rules for quarantine, for example. People in a pod have to be willing to accept any changes that are coming,” Maoud says.
Before switching to adapt to new guidelines, make sure everyone in the pod is clear on the changes.
Take your pod seriously
Forming a pod is a commitment — to the other people in it, of course, and to yourself as well. Make sure you honor that commitment to keep you and everyone in your pod safe.
But once your pod is formed and your ground rules established, try to relax and just enjoy the time you get to spend with people you care about.
“That’s the one good thing about COVID-19, it makes us realize how much our families and friends mean to us,” Maoud says.