As a pediatrician, I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about COVID-19 safety. A mom asked me the other day: “Is it okay for my daughter to have her friend over? I know that her parents practice social distancing and wear masks – what if the girls played outside for an hour while I watched them, in my backyard?”
I’m hearing lots of these types of questions (and, as a mom, I grapple with them, too!). And the truth is, there are very few black and white answers for most things. It all really comes down to the risk you are willing to take.
It’s kind of like deciding whether to swim in the ocean when you know a shark could be nearby. Let’s say you and your kids had just driven 8 hours to get to the beach. Just as you are about to go into the ocean for a dip, you hear that there had been a shark sighting at that beach last week. You’re not sure how far away. Would you go into that water? What if the sighting was earlier today?
Some people would choose to stay planted in their beach chairs, far from the water; others wouldn’t hesitate to wade in. And some people would grab their surfboards!
But it’s important to remember that with this virus, it’s not just our own risk that we’re weighing. It’s also the risk to our family, friends, and even strangers. So, even if you decided to surf because you’re not afraid of the fact that there’s a shark out there – would you allow your 9-year-old to get on their surfboard and join you? How about your 75-year-old mom? What risks are you willing to take?
And the difficult thing about determining your risk for catching COVID-19 is that the risks associated with any activity really depend on a number of factors. Some of the risk is determined by where you’re going, but your risk also depends on who you’re going with and the choices they’ve been making. For example, if the person you’re going to be with wears masks all the time, avoids large gatherings, practices social distancing, washes their hands often, then that person probably has less risk of having the virus than a person who has been going to indoor get-togethers or crowded malls, and wears a mask only occasionally. And then, there is also the issue of honesty. Will the person that you or your child might be seeing tell you what they have and have not been doing?
Social interaction is really important, though, and in some ways, it’s needed now more than ever. We are all in a state of stress, hearing so much bad news, seeing businesses close, and hearing about friends or family that may have been sick. One-third of adults are reporting anxiety and depression and many of us are feeling lonely or isolated. These are the times when you need people around to buffer the stress, and yet, that is restricted. It is hard, and we need to make some tough decisions about how we navigate around these situations.
Here are some questions that I use, to assess risk as I consider social interactions for my kids and myself.
- Will we be inside or outside? COVID-19 travels mostly via respiratory droplets and that’s why it’s important to be physically apart. If you are outside, it’s less likely that the infection will carry or stay suspended in the air, but you still need to stay several feet away.
- Will masks be worn? At this point, we know that masks help prevent infection. When you wear a mask, you limit the spread of droplets when you talk/laugh/sneeze/cough, and the mask also protects you. So, wear your mask, especially when you’re socializing inside, and make sure people are at least 6 feet apart.
- How many people will be at the gathering? The larger the gathering, the greater the risk. Depending on community outbreak levels organizations may recommend less than 9 people in 1000 square feet to less than 25 people in a large group. Check your local state and county recommendations.
- How long will I be at the event? Whether it’s a playdate or a small barbecue, time also matters. The longer the exposure, the more likely that the virus is transmitted, if someone has it. I personally try to limit interactions, even with people I know, to about an hour, and I like to do it outside with some distance.
- Are the people I will be hanging out with following the rules of masks, distancing, and hand hygiene? And are they exposed to others? Remember, whoever you or your kids are with, are potentially bringing viruses from their “circle” of friends. This means that you could be hanging out with many, many people, even though there are only 3-4 of you in the room. This is where trust and honesty are very important. Let others know about the safeguards you’re taking and how much you are engaging with the world – give them an idea of the risks you’re taking so that they can decide if they’re comfortable spending time with you and in what settings.
There are no black and white answers on what you can and can’t do. It comes down to personal choice and risk assessment. But remember that your choices do affect other people. You could be contagious and spread the virus without knowing it, which would mean that other people pay the consequences for the choices you took. You might be brave enough to go out on that surfboard, but what if it resulted in someone else getting bitten?
We do need to connect with others, but we just need to be smart about doing it. And, remember, we are fortunate to have technology that can help us – FaceTime, Zoom, and other apps – so, use those as well to help fill the void.