As Canadian provinces look at relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, a new set of measures are blowing in — like the “double bubble.”
Also called the “family bubble” or “new bubble,” the measure essentially allows two households to link, giving people a chance to socialize and interact with others.
New Brunswick was the first to float the idea. It’s one of the first steps the province is taking in its plan to reopen the economy while still keeping the spread of the coronavirus at bay.
Rules do apply. Public health officials stressed that the households are not interchangeable. Once you combine two households, that’s the way it stays. The decision to join bubbles also needs to be agreed upon by both households.
The measure also recently popped into Newfoundland and Labrador’s reopening plan.
“I hope that this will help reduce some of the social isolation we all feel,” the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said. “Especially those living alone.”
While it’s a “smart” way forward with many benefits for families, it needs to be contextualized with where and when it’s being applied, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.
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“Timing is everything,” he said. “Some provinces are further along or didn’t have the same degree of the pandemic affecting them. These provinces are much better prepared from a community transmission standpoint than other places.”
New Brunswick has recorded 118 cases of the virus and zero deaths as of May 1. Newfoundland and Labrador sit a little higher, at 258 cases and three deaths. Both provinces pale in comparison to more highly populated and denser parts of the country, like Ontario and Quebec, which have more than 16,600 and 27,500 cases, respectively.
But the approach could very well drift to those harder-hit provinces as they get case counts and community transmission rates under control, said Bogoch.
The “bubble strategy” is not yet in the plans for Manitoba, where health orders have eased somewhat. In Ontario, which laid out a phased plan with no timeline, the idea is on their radar. Their chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said his team of experts will watch to see how it plays out elsewhere before advising it.
“It’s premature to do this in, say, Quebec right now. But New Brunswick and Newfoundland, they’re not just flicking a switch and suddenly reducing all their public health restrictions,” Bogoch said.
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“This is a gradual step. It’s measured.”
There are obvious benefits to families, Bogoch added. Concerns about child care have been raised as provinces outline their unique plans to relax restrictions. Some businesses and services will soon reopen, but schools are likely to stay closed and summer is fast approaching.
Linking two households may alleviate some of those stresses, said Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.
“We’ve probably seen a lot of this anyway, kind of informally. I know here people here in Waterloo who are separated from their spouse or partner and the kids are going back and forth,” he said.
“The idea is to allow a little bit more contact between households that might normally be in contact.”
But there are serious risks to take into consideration, he said, since “not every bubble is going to be the same as other bubbles.”
Vulnerable people — particularly the elderly — are more susceptible to contracting the virus and are more likely to face more serious outcomes.
While it may seem like the right idea to bring grandma and grandpa into your home, some “common sense” is needed before you make a decision, Janes said.
“It’s context-dependent. If I bring my grandparents into my home and things reopen, so I go back to work, it will increase the risk for those in the home. The disease is spread from person to person, so the more you increase the number of contacts, the risk goes up,” he said. “Under those circumstances, I would think twice about expanding.”
Double bubbling is an approach Canada has borrowed from New Zealand. The country is also looking at creating travel bubbles, based on the same concept, after seeing a steady decrease in COVID-19 cases.
However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned New Zealanders against bringing too many people into their expanded family “bubbles.”
“We are opening up the economy, but we’re not opening up people’s social lives,” she said.
Fitzgerald, the top doctor in N.L., offered the same warning: “The fewer interactions that you can have outside of your bubble the better.”
Ultimately, the same rules apply if you choose to double your bubble, Bogoch said. Good hand hygiene and continued physical distancing from those outside your linked households will keep risks of contracting the virus low and your family members safe.
“You still have to do everything you can to prevent bringing the infection into the household, because now it affects not just one, but two households.”
–With files from the Canadian Press