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Most Americans are doing pods wrong

You should be adjusting your pandemic pod’s rules to avoid exposure as needed.

Two people, one masked and one not, walk down a sidewalk, both looking at a phone held by one of them.
Two women socializing in Paris. I don’t know if they’re in the same pod.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In November, Joseph Osmundson got a call from one of the people in his quarantine pod while he was brining their Thanksgiving turkey. He learned the group’s bubble of safety had burst: A member of their five-person pod was sick. Osmundson, a clinical assistant professor of biology at New York University with a background in studying viruses, had kept his circle running smoothly since May.

“I was so sad. I had bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of food. We had an 18-pound turkey,” Osmundson, who lives with his partner, told me. “I wasn’t mad at my friend. But it was a brutal fall. I was teaching in person, and I was so looking forward to a few days off, too much food, and seeing my pod. When I found out the news, I was in the middle of prepping. And I immediately turned off the stove and went and just laid down on the couch for a half-hour.”

Stories like Osmundson’s aren’t uncommon, though they may not always involve a ruined holiday and two people being forced to consume nearly 20 pounds of turkey.

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the guidance from epidemiologists has been to form pods, small groups of people in our lives whom we either live with — partners, children, roommates — or choose to see in person. Pods can help lessen our transmission risk in what’s essentially a numbers game.

The more people we interact with in person, the higher our risk of contracting the coronavirus. Paring down the number of people we interact with reduces that risk. The risk is further reduced when the only people you regularly see indoors also see only you. Pods serve another purpose by allowing us to see friends and socialize instead of facing this pandemic with loneliness and isolation.

Figuring out the people in our pods is an odd exercise in itself. Humans aren’t usually asked to trim our friend groups or consider such questions as, “Is this someone I can trust with my health?” or, “Will this person — who is not my significant other or family member — make sacrifices for me?”

That gets even more complicated for people who are making choices for their children or who already live with family members.

If that weren’t emotionally strange enough, we had to deal with the common reality that sometimes, the people in our pods, those we trust with our health, could be exposed to the virus and, unfortunately, may expose us too. That triggers its own set of complicated feelings of shame, blame, and betrayal — all completely normal reactions considering this completely abnormal set of social circumstances, public health experts told me.

Yet somehow Osmundson acted with grace, even with the giant bird and dashed hopes.

“The thing is — and we all said it — it’s not his fault,” Osmundson said. “We all were like, ‘Oh, my god, is he okay?’ Because he had to quarantine, he was scared. He didn’t break the rules of a pod. He accepted that risk altogether. I don’t regret that. And we all did the right thing to stop transmission.”

I’m not entirely sure I’d be as calm as Osmundson in accepting that kind of news. I don’t think I’m alone. Several people I spoke to had stories about losing friendships, roommates moving out, and the looming risk stressing their relationships. Osmundson was prepared, though, because he’d already written one of the best guides to navigating life in pods.

I wanted to know how we can all be better about our quarantine bubbles, and what happens when they fail. Here’s what I learned.

Everyone should have the hard conversations first

Entertainment & Tourism Industries In New York City Struggle Under Pandemic Restrictions
Would you let your podmates visit with other people outside (with masks on)?
Noam Galai/Getty Images

One of my public health sources recommended I talk with Osmundson not only because of his background in virology and biology, but also because Osmundson has what they believe to be the best quarantine pod checklist — a document full of questions about rules, risk factors, and what to do in case there’s an exposure.

The list includes specific, detailed questions: “Are you taking the subway? Only Uber/Lyft? Biking/walking?” and, “What about interactions like doctor appointments or having someone enter your home for repairs and deliveries?” as well as, “How is sex being managed by those having sex outside the pod? What risks are acceptable? What would make people uncomfortable?”

Osmundson said that while creating the checklist, he consulted epidemiologists, public health colleagues with backgrounds in risk mitigation, and HIV/AIDS activists and advocates.

There are some questions on the list that I absolutely haven’t asked and, prior to my conversation with Osmundson, wouldn’t have even thought to ask my podmates. But that’s really the point. Seeing all these questions and rules laid out on paper eliminates any doubt, awkwardness, and gray areas. As the public health experts I talked to explained, these are exactly the types of questions and scenarios, and the level of depth, that potential podmates should be addressing upfront without fear.

“Setting those ground rules upfront [is] one of the ways that you can normalize the process [of trust and risk management], and you can hope they would never introduce it,” Jennifer Balkus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me. “But if you do, then you have something you can fall back on, to say, ‘We’ve already had the hard conversation when it was easy to do so.’”

The less confusion, the better off everyone is. Having everything in writing, public health experts told me, removes the burden of starting an awkward conversation with a podmate and eventually getting to a resolution and an agreement on the types of behavior they are and aren’t comfortable with. This clarity allows for clear action when there’s been an exposure in the pod.

“When there’s been a rupture in the pod or there’s been an exposure or a case — that’s precisely when you need to immediately be 100 percent honest and open,” Osmundson told me.

Don’t think about an exposure as something someone did wrong. It’s not about blame.

Pandemic pod-popping can happen to anyone, even public health experts like Anna Muldoon, a former science policy adviser at the US Department of Health and Human Services and a PhD candidate researching infectious disease and social crises at Arizona State University. Her own pod — made up of other public health scientists — burst during the pandemic, too.

“The first question everyone asks is, ‘Well, how did they get it?’” Muldoon told me. “Like, what did they do wrong? And as someone who has worked on stigmas, that was so frustrating.”

The reaction comes from a place of fear, the thought being that if we know how someone contracted the virus, we can avoid those particular behaviors and keep ourselves safer. It’s a very human and very American way of thinking about disease, Muldoon said.

While normal, that kind of thinking can actually lead to a lot of problems.

Blame makes it seem as though someone was wrong or someone misbehaved, and it can lead to feelings of shame in the person who was exposed. Those feelings could cause someone to not want to get tested or be forthright about their diagnosis, potentially leading to more exposures and putting exponentially more people in the community at risk.

A better way to think about it is to normalize the idea that pod exposure will occur and that pods are designed with this in mind.

Though we may see them as our new social circles, public health experts see pods as more of a tool that helps the health of a community. Pods can lower our own transmission risk, but they can also help us alert others quickly and sufficiently about potential exposure.

“That’s a huge thing that I would say about pods that we haven’t talked about enough, is it’s not just eliminating personal risk and eliminating exposure,” Osmundson told me. “It’s so that when you do, you can immediately contact trace everyone.” It feels bad to burst your bubble, he said, but “it’s worse to have that transmission.”

Osmundson also explained that the US’s failure to conduct adequate contact tracing makes pods integral to the safety of a community. The more people who are quickly notified about exposure, the faster they can quarantine and keep others safe.

“This is one of those moments where we’re all having to learn, like about communitarian action and trust,” Muldoon, who initially recommended Osmundson and his checklist, said. “Really trusting the people in your pod requires a different kind of openness than we’re used to. And it also requires a different level of forgiveness and kindness than we sometimes offer to the people in our lives.”

It’s not easy to be better and quash the anger or resentment — again, it’s a completely normal and human reaction. But in terms of public health, being forgiving and focusing on the next steps and moving forward is exponentially more helpful.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped. Conversations with your pod shouldn’t, either.

Concerns over sharing a maskless meal is something to discuss with your podmates.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

Osmundson, Balkus, and Muldoon all stressed that as the pandemic continues, so should the conversations and check-ins we have with our podmates. Pod rules are meant to evolve. Cases may rise, as we saw during the holidays, which may lead to stricter measures and require more in-depth conversations. Cases could fall, like they did last summer, which may allow for discussions about outdoor socializing and exercising.

“The rules should change over time,” Osmundson told me. “When the rates of the virus go up in your area, everything you do is higher risk. In the summer in New York, when the rates were so low, [going to a gym] might be a risk you’re willing to take. But in January, when we’re having 5,000 cases a day in our city, that risk of that same behavior is very different. The pod rules are not supposed to be like, ‘We make a contract and that’s it.’”

These conversations should also continue as podmates are vaccinated, since scientists don’t fully know yet whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice these experts have is that even they don’t have a perfect solution when it comes to the broken relationships the pandemic has caused. Quite simply, none of this — surviving a pandemic, changing our habits in a year, cutting people out of our lives, or allowing people into the most vulnerable parts of ours — is easy. And it’s absolutely fine to acknowledge that.

“If you think about it, you just don’t have any tools to deal with this, this kind of stress, right?” Stephanie Cook, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU, told me. “So if it’s thrust upon you, then it’s going to be very, very jolting and hard to survive.

“If you’re experiencing all of these things and you’re not used to it, then it has a very, very detrimental impact on one’s relationships, in terms of their quality of relationships, in terms of the number of arguments they’re going to get into with their partners, so on and so forth,” she added.

Cook said we need to give each other grace, to treat the people in our pods with more respect and truly support them, especially as there’s a natural tendency to withdraw. We’re in a life-changing event, and at times the stress of it may cause us to lose sight of the people helping us get through it.

It’s important to acknowledge the beauty and depth of friendships and relationships we maintain. The constant face time with the people we live with isn’t easy, nor is feeling like you’re policing your friends’ activities, like dates or trips they’re taking. But those things could lead to stronger bonds and deeper friendships built upon our newfound appreciations for trust and vulnerability.

“I think it’s unprecedented. We’ve never, we have not in our lifetime, had an event that makes [seemingly all] social activity put you at risk for a deadly virus,” Osmundson told me. “I think what I’ve noticed isn’t necessarily that I have fewer friends, but the friendships are deeper. I have definitely grown in trust and intimacy with my podmates. It’s familial in a way it wasn’t quite before.”