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Return to school and work a good time to ‘rethink’ your social bubble, doctor says

TORONTO — The traditional return to routine after Labour Day will be anything but routine for Canadians in 2020.

While the country has returned to some degree of normalcy, with gyms, salons, indoor dining and movie theatres and malls now open and most provinces and territories planning a return to school in September, what does all that mean for so-called social bubbles?

Many provinces urged residents to limit their close interactions to a controlled group of people making shared decisions about managing potential exposure to COVID-19. Some provinces imposed limits, with Ontario and Nova Scotia capping a bubble size at 10, while Alberta set it at 15.

Quebec said instead that gatherings must be limited to people from a maximum of three households, while Manitoba urged residents to mainly interact with their immediate household.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, says managing risk through social bubbles will still be effective as people head back to school and work, but Canadians should be assessing how their lives may change come September and adjusting their bubbles as needed.

“I think that concept is still a very good concept because it really involves thinking about how we closely interact with people around us,” Bogoch told CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday. “But, of course, as kids go back to school, it’s time to rethink our bubble and rethink who we are, what our risks are, what our possible exposures are.”

Some may not need to make any changes at all, but for others, things will be drastically different and their bubbles will need to shrink.

“It certainly is worth taking a pause and rethinking an individual’s situation and your potential exposures to COVID-19.”

Bogoch suggests households take inventory of their own and their social bubble’s risks of severe outcomes should members contract COVID-19. He says a group of young healthy friends will have a different risk than bubbles that include the elderly or those with diabetes or fighting cancer.

Also, make a realistic assessment of the general risk of the virus in your community, and if there are school-aged children in your bubble, examine the district and school plans to mitigate transmission once schools reopen, he said.

“And I think it’s just a good idea to talk amongst those in the bubble and have some introspection and really think, if there’s a child in that bubble that’s going back to school, is it worthwhile reorganizing the bubble or maintaining the bubble and it’s just a time for people to speak together and re-evaluate their unique situations.”

He said it may be a good idea to close a bubble for the month of September with the idea of re-examining the situation in October. It’s important to remember that the pandemic never stays static and change will be constant, he said.

Bogoch urges people to do what feels safe for themselves and their families. There is no one-size-fits-all solution because situations and risk thresholds vary widely.

Along with bubbles of friends and family, bubbles can be geographic, too.

The four Atlantic provinces instituted a travel bubble July 3 that allows residents of those provinces to freely travel within them but requires those from outside to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

Bogoch says he prefers working with the concept of social bubbles of 10 or so people, which is a “very manageable and reasonable number of people” though with proper physical distancing and wearing of masks geographic bubbles can work, too, in areas where community transmission is non-existent or very low.

But they may offer a “false sense of security” because they create much larger networks of potential exposure, he said.

“And certainly we know, even with the best-laid plans, and even with the best bubbles, they are permeable and infection can come in.” 

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