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Family photo. Cheerful little girl taking a selfie with her grandmother hugging her on the couch and mom standing behind the couch and leaning forward, all beautiful and happy.

From choosing cute face coverings to ordering restaurant takeout, the COVID-19 pandemic has created experiences families couldn’t have imagined a year ago. One of the most nerve-wracking can be deciding who to physically spend time with.

With Umatilla and Morrow counties back to Phase 1 of reopening, some limited social gatherings are again allowed. But with social distancing in place, the safest strategy is to remain isolated with those you live with. Exposing your family to other people can still be scary for some.

One option is creating pandemic pods, social bubbles, or “quaranteams” – small groups of people you interact with who are taking the same precautions you are. The bubble allows families to expand social circles gradually with people who are following similar safeguards.

The Oregon Health Authority calls a “bubble” everyone you live with and everyone you spend time with outside of your house. The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to keep track of everyone in it.

The “bubbles” are a form of risk reduction, not a foolproof way of avoiding risk. The more people in the group, the greater the chance of exposure to the coronavirus. But those bubbles do allow families to have in-person, social interaction, which can be important for mental health and social development. The slow expansion helps keep your family safe – and limits the size of an outbreak if someone gets sick.

In some cases, the bubble is two families where children and adults can interact with the understanding the other family is following the same rules. In other cases, the bubble could be families that band together for schooling or childcare. The Oregon Health Authority says once you set a bubble, you should limit it to the same small number of people so you can lower your risk for COVID-19 as well as the risk of exposing others.

However you choose to create a social bubble, there are a few guidelines to follow:

Set rules and guidelines before getting together. If everyone in the group agrees to interact together and help keep the team safe, everyone should agree to follow the rules – and let others know if they break them.

Get everyone on the same page for what you hope to accomplish through the bubble. Is it for conversation? Schooling? Emotional support?

Make a plan for if someone gets sick or is exposed. If one member of the pod begins showing symptoms of COVID-19, then the whole group must react the same way – likely by quarantining.

Know how the bubble rules will adapt if state restrictions change.

Have clear communication. Everyone in the bubble should feel comfortable talking about changes, risks, and expectations. Keep your communication specific and up-to-date as things change. If someone is exposed, they should not fear letting everyone in the bubble know.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, rules and restrictions have not stayed consistent. As guidelines and guidance continues to change, the Oregon Health Authority and county health departments may set restrictions that change how and where your bubble is able to interact.

In your bubble, you can minimize risks by meeting outside, wearing masks, and not sharing food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend practicing everyday preventive actions if you do chose to interact with others, in public or in a pandemic pod: wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid close contact, and cover your mouth and nose when around others.

And no matter how much you want to interact with others, stay home if you feel sick.

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Jennifer Colton is news director of KOHU and KQFM, and mother of three, based in Pendleton.

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