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Can I Visit Just One Family During the Pandemic?

You're longing for connection, your child is begging for a playdate, you're stir crazy. Is it okay to visit with just one other family during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #372
waving from a distance
The Quick And Dirty
  • Essential workers keep 26.5 percent of households in a community connected, meaning one case of COVID-19 could spread to one quarter of the community due to unavoidable social connections
  • If every household connects with just one other household, 71 percent of the community is reconnected
  • The impact of social distancing can be invisible, but it is powerful

“I’m just so sick of you!”

“How long have we been in here?!”

“I just want a playdate!”

These are quotes from my six-year-old daughter’s friends as reported in a text chain of moms I turn to for sanity and support these days. Children are often the voice of raw truth, untempered by societal norms. I think it’s safe to say that many of us are feeling similar emotions now that we're more than 30 days into social distancing efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Humans are social animals

With the weather warming up, families reaching their limits with each other, and those isolating alone eager for other human contact, many are considering adding just one more friend or family into the fold. After all, isn’t that the same as staying home alone, as long as we both vow to only see each other? Well, a new report shows that even visiting one other friend or household reconnects (and gives a path for the virus to travel through) most households in a community. 

How can that possibly be true? A simulation put together by a team at the University of Washington shows us how. I’m sorry to say, the math doesn’t lie.

A new report shows that even visiting one other friend or household reconnects (and gives a path for the virus to travel through) most households in a community.

The work was led by Dr. Steven Goodreau, a professor of anthropology and epidemiology, and Dr Martina Morris, professor of sociology and statistics. They are both network epidemiologists, which, according to UW, means they study how social connections influence the spread of infectious agents. 

The visualization, appropriately called “Can’t I please just visit one friend?” looks at 200 imaginary households represented by 200 green dots with dark gray lines connecting the households that have social connections. The researchers focused only on social connections that could lead to the spread of the novel coronavirus, like personal contact closer than the recommended six feet.

Without any social distancing efforts at all, each household has an average of 15 connections to other households.

Of course, some households have more connections than others, but without any social distancing efforts at all, each household has an average of 15 connections to other households. As you can imagine, the visualization looks like a big messy ball of dots and lines. Each household is also connected within only three degrees of separation. So you can find a way to trace a line from one house to any other house in the community making only two stops or less at other households along the way.

So what do things look like after social distancing is put in place? Now, most of the green dots are isolated with no connections to any other green dots. But I say “most” because the researchers assume that 10 percent of the households include an essential worker, someone who has to venture out because they are a grocery store clerk or a doctor or, like my husband, an engineer in a factory. They also assume those essential workers have, on average, connections to four other households. 

The visualization represents these 20 households with an essential worker as blue dots. In some cases, a blue dot only has a social connection to only one green dot—perhaps that essential worker delivers meals but only closely interacts with one of their customers. In other cases, the essential worker may interact with many more people, for example as a pharmacist supplying medicine.

However, the largest cluster of connected households is still only 53 households or 26.5 percent of the community. So in the case of complete social distancing except for essential workers, the largest potential spread of the virus from one single case would be to 26.5 percent of the community—not as good as zero, but far better than 100 percent. 

As the researchers somewhat morbidly explain:

Let us be very clear here: some people are going to get infected, and some people are going to die, because of these connections… But these connections are so essential that we as a society are willing to make that trade-off. Without them, many more people would die of other basic things besides COVID-19: starvation, freezing, crime, other diseases.

What happens if every family connects with just one other family?

Now let’s have every household reconnects with just one other household in an unbreakable friendship pact only to see each other. What happens then?

If one person in this community of 200 [connected] households comes down with COVID-19, they have the opportunity to spread it to almost three-quarters of the community.

Thanks to the existing, unavoidable connections created by essential workers, adding in these optional social connections means the largest cluster of connectivity is now 71 percent of households. So the majority of the community is connected to people they don’t know or ever see. If one person in this community of 200 households comes down with COVID-19, they have the opportunity to spread it to almost three-quarters of the community. If you connect with just two households, you reconnect more than 90 percent of the households in the community. 

This domino effect of connections makes one thing clear: we rely on each other. We rely on each other in logistical ways—a diagnosis from a doctor, food to eat from a store clerk, diapers from a delivery person. But we also rely on each other for social support. We are used to that support coming in the form of, say, a hug from a friend. But now that support may need to look like staying home. As the researchers note, “You may never know if [your social distancing effort] made a difference, and if it did, exactly whose life was saved. It could be the daughter of the grocery store worker where your friend’s parents shop.”

The researchers also note caveats to their unpublished work: what about group living situations like nursing homes or kids who split time between divorced parents or those of our neighbors experiencing homelessness? They acknowledge the simplification of their model and hope that it serves as a first step toward understanding the pathways for viral spread. 

We are used to getting support in the form of, say, a hug from a friend. But now that support may need to look like staying home.

Of course, I’d like to add that mental health is also important. The dots in this visualization don’t care about connecting with each other, so it’s easy for them to avoid each other if they’re told to do so. Checking on your grandmother who is alone and may need help is still important. A single parent who is also an essential worker may have no choice but to seek childcare. There are other factors to consider.

The key here is to also remember the invisible impact we may have on our community as we listen to our child beg us for just one playdate.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.