Tough decisions ahead as British Columbians consider bigger social bubbles
VANCOUVER -- When the province announced how it would begin easing public health orders that shuttered businesses and services, they also urged British Columbians to consider a small number of people to reintroduce into their lives — and that led to some confusion.
Increasing contacts from the current 30 per cent to 60 per cent of normal, having two to six guests over for a meal, allowing some people to hug but not others — while urging social distancing — seemed vague and even contradictory.
But that was by design, according to public health researchers, and indirectly, from the province’s top doctor, who all emphasize mindfulness about how we choose to interact and with whom.
“These are challenging things and part of this is we’ve all been so conscientious about doing our bit and that is so important, but it’s also important to make sure we have connections with people and particularly with our family,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry says people should be more cautious if living with seniors, but anyone living alone can look at expanding their social bubble to multiple people — slowly and only a handful at a time. Maintaining two metres between people, whether inside or outside, is always preferable and anyone who feels unwell should avoid being around anyone else.
“What I want people to think about it starting small, so expand your circle,” said Henry. “But don’t make it two people one night, four people who are different the next night. What we want to make sure is we increase our social connections with the people who are close to us but that we are very mindful that if we have connections — we’re then connected with their connections — and that increases our risk.”
That means bigger families may have some tough decisions to make about just how much contact to have with other people, who may have big families of their own.
UBC neurology professor Dr. Judy Illes, who holds the Canada research chair in neuroethics, praised Henry’s approach precisely because it didn’t speak to some families or personal circumstances while excluding others.
“We cannot possibly imagine every context for every person and we can’t expect our leaders to imagine that. What they can do is provide us guidance and then we have to be responsible within the frameworks they’re giving us,” said Illes. “There won’t be any black and white and nobody should look for a black and white. At the end of the day it’s going to be a balance but the balance has to definitely swing on the benefit side and away from the risk (of potential transmission).”
Kiffer Card, a researcher at the University of Victoria’s school of public health, acknowledged that can be difficult messaging for officials to convey to the public.
“Finding things to help people take precautions where they should be taken is the task of the next few months in this new phase,” said Card. “We don’t want people to be anxious about this. We do want them to take precautions but just just as there’s people who are naturally anxious, there are those predisposed to be carefree and worry-free and they think 'oh, public health messaging is it’s lightening up, that means we can just go about our lives again.'"
Henry used an example of a parent going back to work with potential COVID-19 exposures, whose children are in daycare and who also visit with their grandparents. Adding playdates or other families to their contacts means amplified risk to a family with several sources of potential exposure.
“It’s hard to give hard and fast rules but we want small numbers. We want outside. We don’t want people congregating,” insisted Henry. “We want to do it in a safe way so that we continue some of the measures we’ve had to stop transmission of the virus but increase our social connectedness in physical ways.”
Hugging is Henry-approved, provided it's between people you’ve decided to let inside your "double bubble," which is the handful of people you decide to start mindfully seeing outside of your household.
"Hug your grandparents if they’re your people. Hug your friends if you haven’t seen them — the friends you’ve chosen to be each other’s bubble. That’s important," Henry said.
"And of course hug your family, your household, every day."