Most people are being encouraged or mandated to stay at home and social distance through the end of this month, if not longer. That’s obviously challenging: Many adults ― whether they’re working on the front lines or at home ― are balancing watching their kids while doing their job. Some people are navigating co-parenting or caretaking during this time. And on top of these challenges are the strains of staying separated from loved ones.
Given that many have been self-isolating for two weeks or more ― the standard recommendation for monitoring the appearance of coronavirus symptoms ― some wonder if they can start bringing others into their quarantines to alleviate some of these burdens. So, what do experts think?
Unfortunately, the answer is generally a no ― with the exception of a very few scenarios in which experts think merging households right now is a viable option.
“I see the potential use for it, but I also see room for abuse, where groups of people might use it as a reason to get together, saying that they’re a ‘support group,’” said Justin Bahl, epidemiology and biostatistics professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public Health.
If it’s restricted to family units seeking a caretaking arrangement, “I would support [merged households], particularly if it’s groups that have maintained quarantine for a 14-day period,” he said.
Kelly Hills, a bioethicist and co-founder of Rogue Bioethics, agreed and pointed to a circumstance where such steps may be necessary.
Consider, for instance, a single parent who is an essential worker and has two kids under age 15.
“You have to work and you don’t know who can help. If you have a friend who’s a single mom and a teacher, and the kids are the same age, they might want to move in together so the friend can watch the kids and you can go back to work,” she said. “The household is increasing their risk, but maybe it’s a net benefit.”
While most situations right now are difficult and isolating, it remains best not to fold people into your quarantine to alleviate that. If you are in a caretaking scenario like Bahl and Hills mentioned above, or some other extreme circumstances, read on for what you should do.
Consider exposure risks
Think long and hard about who you could be potentially exposing in a new quarantine arrangement, especially since experts recommend that everyone should already behave like they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.
If anyone is high-risk, including those with underlying health conditions like asthma or those over the age of 60, you definitely should not quarantine with them, according to Hills. It’s also important to look at what each person does for work and how that affects their exposure risk, she said.
“The worry is always how the social network expands,” Bahl added. “Say we wanted to join family units, and my social network is four people, and yours is 100, maybe because you’re considered an essential worker and you’re still interacting with people. By joining family units, the risk of our combined social network has increased.”
This spike in exposure already threatens healthy individuals. And if there are any high risk individuals in the home, it may become too dangerous.
“I worry that this risk is simply too high, because you’re bringing in vulnerable people, or people to protect those vulnerable individuals, and their risk goes up a lot,” Bahl said.
Take extra precautions or adjustments within your home first
Social distancing and isolating from people you live with can be challenging, but for families with a high-risk or sick member who requires caretaking, extra safety measures have to be taken within the home, Hill said.
If there’s a household member with a high risk of exposure due to their line of work, they should absolutely separate from a family member who needs assistance — staying in separate rooms, avoiding shared spaces if possible, and regularly disinfecting and sanitizing to prevent contamination, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a good idea to have a family member with a lower exposure step up to do the caretaking — and if there’s no one you live with who fits the bill, that could be justification for considering bringing in a friend or relative to help, Hills said.
If you absolutely insist on bringing in someone to your quarantine, you need to follow a safety protocol
Before attempting a merged living situation, evaluate the health of all members, Hills said.
If any individuals are sick, either showing symptoms of COVID-19 or having tested positive for the virus, they should first isolate for at least 14 days and get health clearance from their doctor. If anyone has been exposed to the virus, regardless of exhibiting symptoms, they should also quarantine for two weeks.
To be safe, otherwise healthy individuals following stay-at-home and safe distancing protocol would do best to undergo a 14-day quarantine period before making any decisions as well. It’s also best to directly consult a doctor for their advice.
After joining homes, members should establish a safe protocol going forward —ideally, social distancing and limiting trips outside the home to necessities, like pharmacy and grocery runs. Granted, this can be complicated, depending on the immediate needs of each individual, but it’s important to set ground rules with members of your home.
Bottom line, be smart. This isn’t something you should do, it’s only something to consider ― and consult on ― in rare cases right now. Talking to a doctor before doing anything is always a good idea.
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