Can circles of trust be trusted?

The reality of sharply limited contact with people outside our households is going to be with us for a while.

Since we’re a social species, this creates enormous pressure on us all – from adults who live alone to families with children who miss their friends and activities.

“Social contact is incredibly important,” said Dr. Stacy Ogbeide, a psychologist who sees patients at University Health and an associate professor with UT Health San Antonio, “even at a time like this where physical distance is also incredibly important.”

But the summer surge in COVID-19 infections, attributed to relaxing public health restrictions and increased social gatherings, proved that the virus isn’t going away any time soon.

And in a household where your only company is family, that means times can get tense. Stir-crazy small children who long to run around with their buddies become less cute as parents near the edge of madness. Teens may seem to live on screens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want – and need – to interact with peers in person. College students and young adults chafe at the restriction during a time in their lives when they quite often want to run in packs. And if you live alone and your friends constitute your nearest family, the isolation can become intense.

To cope, some people have been creating “circles of trust” and “quaran-teams”, where families or groups of friends distance from everyone else except for a select group.

That closer contact is very risky indeed.

“Intuitively, it seems like it could work,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, University Health epidemiologist and associate professor with UT Health San Antonio. “But keep in mind, you’re going to be as at much risk as the person most exposed.”

“It’s like those old public health posters about STDs,” he added. “The ones where they say, “When you’re with someone, you’re with every person they’ve been with.”

And with coronavirus exposure, it’s not so much a matter of trust as an understanding that some people simply do not believe they are personally at risk for serious complications.

“People who are not high risk tend not to be as mindful about their interactions,” he said. On the other hand, “if you’re an organ transplant recipient, you are aware that every person you meet could expose you to infection.”

Peer pressure

In San Antonio, health investigators attributed much of the large summer surge in infections and deaths to family gatherings that sprang up with the lifting of social gathering restrictions around Memorial Day. Family can carry great emotional power. People may really miss and dearly want to see their extended families, Dr. Bowling said, but they may also feel pressured to join a large gathering by other family members who are not as concerned about the virus.

Once you give in and go, being the only one in the room to wear a mask and refuse the home cooking on the buffet can’t be easy, either, he said.

“Are you going to wear a mask at grandma’s house if she doesn’t want you to?” he said. Being the only person in the group to not hug anyone, or remain outside, or basically follow all the recommendations for preventing viral transmission, can be an isolating feeling in itself.

Mixed messages

Dr. Bowling predicts the situation will only get harder to manage as the pandemic stretches on.

“People who work in hospitals still see what’s going on here,” he said, but outside of that world, students are returning to schools and sports activities are restarting, adding to the confusion.

“People want to be done with this,” and give flimsy excuses to try to return to the old normal without masks or physical distancing, he said. “It’s so painful to hear.”

Then how do we connect?

Positive human connections are important for mental and physical well-being, so it stands to reason that during a global pandemic they’re more important than ever. There’s a mountain of research that shows long-term social isolation leads to anxiety and depression, Dr. Ogbeide said, so it’s a good idea to put extra effort into finding other ways to connect.

“Challenge oneself to think outside the box,” she said. Some of her patients have been hesitant to try new technology, but the video chat and online hangout options are many and easy to use.

And don’t forget the technology that used to be de rigueur for remote connection – the telephone.

But what about when you need more face to face than FaceTime?

Hugs can still be healthy

It’s hard for many not to be able to hug their buddy, and research has shown that hugging can lower heart rate and blood pressure, release the hormone oxytocin, and reduce the stress hormone cortisol.

And while long hugs and cheek kisses are off the table for the time being, there are safer ways to hug.

Keep in mind simple infection control guidelines.

  • Keep the groups small. Fewer than 10 people is the general rule, but potential exposure is much easier to manage if your group is five or fewer.
  • If you go to a restaurant, choose one that maintains at least six feet of distance between dining parties and has outside dining options.
  • Make sure restaurants and businesses you visit are consistent about requiring employees and guests to wear a mask.
  • Bring your own hand sanitizer in case the establishment doesn’t offer it at the entrance. Use it upon entering, and before and after dining.
  • Go on walks outdoors where you can keep a distance from one another.
  • Visit outside at your place or theirs, at a distance. You can set the chairs up at a distance and sanitize them before guests arrive.
  • Have people bring their own food and drink, and don’t share serving utensils.
  • Wear masks and avoid spending prolonged periods of time in enclosed places.
  • Minimize the touching of shared surfaces and maximize the hand sanitizer.

Other resources on the importance of human contact:

The Coronavirus Outbreak Keeps Humans from Touching. Here’s Why That’s So Stressful –

No Hugging: are we living in a crisis of touch? A pre-coronavirus article about the importance of touch from The Guardian.

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