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How to make a COVID-19 bubble to safely celebrate the holidays with others

Creating a COVID-19 bubble requires unwavering commitment to a two-week period of testing, temperature checks, and quarantine from all parties involved. (Graphic by Amanda Patterson, UT Physicians)
Creating a COVID-19 bubble requires unwavering commitment to a two-week period of testing, temperature checks, and quarantine from all parties involved. (Graphic by Amanda Patterson, UT Physicians)

Some families are planning to celebrate the holidays in person by creating their own “family bubble,” after the National Basketball Association used the technique for its recent season. But does it work without the resources and workforce of a national sports association?

While it is a good option, experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) caution that it’s not as easy as it sounds – it requires unwavering commitment to a two-week period of testing, temperature checks, and quarantine from all parties involved. Below are the steps you’ll need to take to have the highest chances of your bubble accomplishing a coronavirus-free get-together.

COVID-19 bubble preparations – hunker down

A family’s COVID-19 bubble success will depend on how it was engineered, when the preparations began, and everyone’s commitment to the process.

“Bottom line, creating a COVID-19 bubble is hard,” said Luis Ostrosky, MD, professor of infectious disease at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth who sees patients at UT Physicians, the school’s medical practice. “It has to be well-planned and strict. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to get one test right before and then see my grandparents.’”

Ostrosky said COVID-19 testing and quarantine should begin two weeks prior to the gathering. Testing should be done via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing which is molecular, meaning it detects genetic material that is specific to the coronavirus. In contrast, the antigen test detects protein fragments – those are typically rapid tests.

“PCR testing is much more sensitive,” said Ostrosky. “Unlike the antigen test, PCR results are considered to be much more accurate and can be ready in a matter of minutes, but also could take a few days to receive depending on where you’re tested.”

He recommends the following COVID-19 testing schedule prior to gathering:

  • 14 days out
  • Seven days out
  • Three days out
  • Optional test two days into the gathering to allow for any incubation time from the last test

“If someone receives a positive COVID-19 result, that person should not gather with others and instead join the festivities virtually to avoid putting anyone at risk. Testing after celebrating in the bubble should not be necessary, given everyone vigilantly followed the guidelines,” Ostrosky said.

Additionally, those wishing to enter the bubble should monitor their temperature daily.

Before you begin the quarantine/testing process, it’s a good idea to stock up on any essentials you might need so you don’t have to leave the house during your bubble preparations.

Entering the bubble

Avoid flying to your gathering, as that opens up the door for new exposures. If you drive, avoid stopping while driving to your destination. Once everyone is gathered as a unit, it’s still wise to maintain all safety measures advised by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) such as frequent handwashing, social distancing, and wearing a mask.

Other ways to make your holiday celebrations more secure is to bring in your own food, drinks, utensils, and cups.

Celebrating separately

Ostrosky said that the safest celebrations this year are separate.

“Staying home with your immediate family – only those in your own household – is the best thing to do,” Ostrosky suggests. “Especially if you haven’t already begun planning your bubble, or your group has missed important steps to ensure its success.”

This year, consider hosting a virtual holiday party to spend time with your extended family and friends, exchanging meals without contact, or writing down what you are grateful for and sharing it with loved ones.

For additional information on celebrating the holidays during the pandemic, visit the CDC’s site.

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