We get it. Kids want to see their friends and their grandparents. Grandparents want to see their grandkids, their kids and their friends. Parents want to see their parents and their friends and get a break from their kids.
We’re not talking about seeing people by Zoom or some other digital platform. We crave in-person contact.
It’s been a long almost four months of the coronavirus pandemic in Austin. We are starved for social interaction.
At Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, they are seeing more children with depression, mood disorders and psychotic outbreaks than would be typical during a normal summer, said Dr. Meena Iyer, chief medical officer for the center.
People need to see other people; yet we know flocking to parks and rivers and hanging out at bars and other close-quarter venues led to our area hitting highs in the number of new cases each day and the number of new hospitalizations.
How can we be together in person while minimizing our risks?
"There’s no black and white," says Dr. Aliza Norwood, assistant professor of internal medicine and population health at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas. "It’s all about risk modifications, having a clear understanding of what the lowest-risk activities are and your personal comfort."
She recommends families assess their own risks and "be aware of how much potential you have of contacting COVID."
If you want to see an elderly relative and you have a teenager who lives in your house who has been going out to parties, you have increased your risk of getting the virus and bringing it to your relative, she says.
She suggests families assess the risks they have taken and create an agreement about how many risks everyone is going to take.
The lowest-risk way to see people in person is outdoors, spaced 6 or more feet apart, wearing masks, using hand sanitizer often and not sharing food or beverages.
If you have an elderly relative you haven’t seen in a while, think about the outdoor spaces where you could see one another from afar. Perhaps it’s outside their senior living center or house.
We need to stop gathering in large groups in close spaces, Norwood says. "There’s a whole lot of community spread."
She includes in that the people who have COVID-19 but don’t have symptoms and are spreading it.
"I would be wary of going to closely packed churches or temples, even, sadly, funerals or weddings," she says.
Norwood understands that folks are tired of not socializing; she’s an extrovert who had to postpone her May wedding because of the pandemic. "I totally get it," she says. "It’s just awful."
Families can create a circle of people with whom they will interact who are only interacting with them and no one else. That could be a family and their grandparents, or a neighbor family. However, if one person in that group interacts with a person outside of the group who later tests positive for the virus, everyone in the group is at risk.
If you want kids to see their friends, "you have to know your kids, and you have to know who else you’re going to be socializing with," says Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer at Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
Small groups, one or two other families, could be OK. "Ten families at one time is a recipe for not working," he says. "You don’t want a bunch of kids sharing everything."
Iyer says she also wouldn’t socialize every day. "Once a week, once every other week," she says, and "try to isolate. If you can do one or two at a time; you know the family, you know they are taking the precautions (of wearing a mask, washing their hands, not going out in crowds)."
One of the big questions about the coronavirus is how much kids have contributed to the spread of the disease. In most other diseases, kids are the primary spreaders, Spinner says, but the data haven’t shown that in the coronavirus. Some reasons could be that they are asymptomatic and are not being tested as often. Also, for months most kids haven’t been at school or day care, lowering their exposure to other people.
Spinner says he is seeing adolescents and young adults spreading the virus heavily right now. And he and Iyer are seeing kids being hospitalized with it. Often, those kids have an underlying condition, which can include obesity or asthma, but that is not always the case.
"Kids have some fever, some trouble breathing if it’s a normal healthy child," Iyer says. "If they are immune-compromised, then they get much sicker and have complications and get admitted."
Norwood also would be concerned about how wide your circle is, especially for families who regularly see someone with risk factors for getting very sick from the disease. Those include people 65 and older and people with autoimmune disorders, lung disorders and diabetes.
Everyone can take steps to not increase spread that seem to be working in other areas of the world as they reopen: wash hands, wear masks, use hand sanitizer and socially distance.
"If everybody wears masks and if everybody is sanitizing hands, the overall risk is going to be so much lower," Norwood says.
She doesn’t think we’re going to go back to the way things were in February for a long time, until we have a vaccine. "Now it’s a big fire raging," she says. "There’s not a great way to completely snuff it out unless we have some way to protect people or shut down for a long time and it dies out."
Until the coronavirus is snuffed out, doing low-risk things is reasonable, she says, including sitting on a porch more than 6 feet apart from your best friend and drinking a glass of wine that you brought over yourself.
"It’s all about what is your comfort level with risks," she says.