Some combat pandemic’s isolation by forming ‘quaranteams’ with friends

08/11/2020 - Avondale Estates, Georgia - A group of women socialize in their neighbors backyard in Avondale Estates, Tuesday, August 11, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Maren Wronowski barely left her Atlanta home during the spring.

With the coronavirus spreading swiftly throughout Georgia, she stopped eating dinner out, and meeting friends for after-work drinks, and taking strolls to the playground with her daughter. Her social circle was reduced mainly to her boyfriend and her 9-year-old.

But the days grew long and the weeks dragged on with such limited social interaction. So, as spring gave way to summer, she decided it was time to widen the circle, ever so cautiously.

She and her two joined with four others to form a “quaranteam,” meaning they agreed to isolate themselves from the larger world, as much as they can, and to hang out together. It wasn’t exactly a vow to forsake all others, but close — more like going steady.

“It’s improved our mood and reduced tension once we added the personal human connection back into our lives,” said Wronowski, who is 38.

“It has saved our sanity.”

Maren Wronowski, her daughter Stella, and Maren's boyfriend, Brad Krabbe formed a quaranteam several weeks ago. They teamed up with a small handful of people who are as careful as they are: they avoid crowded spaces, and wear face coverings when they go out in public.

After nearly five months devoid of backyard barbecues, pool parties, restaurant outings and other gatherings, Georgians and people across the country are creating similar “quaranteams” or “pandemic pods” in an effort to balance the risks of the pandemic with the emotional needs of life.

Socializing in small groups with the same friends allow quaranteam members to set expectations, if not outright rules, for safe behavior.

Dr. Bronwen Garner, an infectious disease expert at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, considers it a solid “risk reduction strategy.”

“It is certainly riskier than complete isolation when it comes to physical health. But, when you enter mental health in there, this is probably one of the better ways, if you and your family aren’t able to get what you need socially from Zoom and FaceTime,” she said.

As the pandemic continues with no end in sight, many people have decided that cutting off social contact is not sustainable.

But public health experts urge caution, especially with the number of cases so high right now in Georgia. They recommend that people who form social circles set firm ground rules and hold frank, honest discussions.

Even among small groups of friends who interact only with each other, it’s still better to avoid closed indoor places and to gather outdoors, the experts said. Outside, with the air constantly moving, it’s less likely people will breathe in enough respiratory droplets containing the virus to become infected. Dr. Danny Branstetter, Wellstar medical director of infection prevention, recommends that people practice physical distancing and mask-wearing even within the pod.

While small gatherings are better than large gatherings, even those can pose risks.

Pods might “offer a false sense of security,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University’s Division of Infectious Diseases,

After all, such groups rely on all its members acting cautiously and sticking to the agreed-upon terms.

In a pod of five, if each person has contact with just five additional people, the number of indirect exposures can quickly add up to more than 100 people, Sexton cautioned. She, too, recommends physical distancing and mask wearing within the quaranteams.

Garner said pod members need to decide how much risk they are willing to accept, such as whether it’s OK for someone in the group to visit family or whether a trip to the doctor’s office should be followed by a self isolation period.

“There is this delicate dance, and it can be awkward,” she said. “We are not used to asking personal questions about behavior choices and hygiene and passing judgment if you will.”

Garner said her three young children spend time with her parents and in-laws, but they adhere to physical distancing. Her 7-year-old is allowed to play outside with friends and to ride his bike without a mask, but he avoids activities with close contact.

Nikeisha Whatley-León, director of Behavioral Health Services at Northside Hospital, added that trust is critical. Without it, the quaranteam could end up causing stress and defeat the purpose.

“Stick to your comfort level and be real,” she said. “And remember you are not married to it. The key is not to put any more pressure on yourself. Be upfront from the beginning that you are doing this on a trial basis.”

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE
Peggy Burgess (left) laughs while sharing a story with Anjo Jones (right) and Christena Bledose (center) as they socially distance at a neighbor's backyard in Avondale Estates. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Carolyn Chandler, who is 79, gets together with a group of friends once a week, outdoors.

“I think we were all trying to figure something out because we were all going a little stir crazy,” said Chandler.

Most people bring their own beverages and chairs, which are spaced at least six feet apart.

“Several in the group live alone, and this is really important,” said Chandler. “We share book titles and TV show recommendations. I don’t think we ever run out of things to talk about.”

Meanwhile, Wronowski and her quaranteam gathered for a meal recently. Her boyfriend, Brad Krabbe, who has developed an affinity for making homemade bread during the pandemic, made a fresh loaf for the occasion.

“The human interaction with our little team is my favorite part of the week,” she said.

Carolyn Chandler (right) and Mary Bell (left) speak with other women at a weekly outdoor meetup in Avondale Estates. Each Tuesday, weather permitting, Chandler and Bell open their backyard to whoever is interested in hanging out, at a social distance, to catch up and chat. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

ADVICE FOR CREATING A QUARANTEAM

Find a good match, which means a family or friends who are just as careful as you are.

Be prepared to answer questions about your daily life and precautions you take, such as are you working from home? Going to the grocery store or hairdresser?

Smaller groups are better, and should be no more than 10 people, to limit possible exposure to the virus.

Consider lowering the risk even more by wearing masks, social distancing and spending time together outdoors.

Don’t skip a trial period, which will give everyone time to see if the group works.

SOURCE: Dr. Bronwen Garner, an infectious disease expert at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, and Nikeisha Whatley-León, director of Behavioral Health Services at Northside Hospital.