Our experts weigh in on this trending idea.

By Jenn Sinrich
March 25, 2020

There's a whirlwind of information about coronavirus best practices, especially concerning how to safely isolate yourself—the goal being that you protect yourself and others from possible exposure. There's good reason for this: The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, as it's spread globally to hundreds of countries; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventing (CDC), there are more than 44,000 cases in the United States (and there are currently active cases in each of its 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

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With cases rising at exponential rates, Americans are being told to practice social distancing. But what exactly does this term mean—and just how isolated do you have to be? As of right now, the CDC recommend that all Americans stay six feet away from other people. If you're showing any symptoms, however, you should reduce your interactions to absolutely zero until you are confirmed to be negative for the virus, and avoid group gatherings completely.

But is there any possibility for small gatherings if you none of the parties involved have or are carrying the virus—especially if you and your loved ones practice social distancing ahead of coming together? Whispers of "isolation pods," or groups of people who band together after self-isolating for a specific period of time, have cropped up in news stories left and right. But are they safe? We tapped several experts to weigh in.

Related: What You Need to Know About Caring for Your Pets During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Can two isolated families gather?

Here's the thing: There are currently no guidelines on when people who are isolated can re-congregate. "Some public health officials are saying after two weeks, but given the rampant nature of the virus and inability to be sure who is asymptomatic and infected, that detail has yet to be confirmed," says Niket Sonpal, M.D., assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, New York. "At this time, it is not recommended to isolate in groups—just stay home with your family to help flatten the curve." Though extreme, he notes that social isolation of this nature is critical at this stage.

But if your family vows to isolate, and another family (for example, your brother and sister-in-law or your neighbors) do the same, can you spend time together? The short answer is no—gatherings of 10 people or more are not recommended at this time, per the federal administration (in some states, gathering restrictions are even more severe). And experts agree that this is the right move. "Without testing to ensure that people are truly negative and not carriers (since people can still be infected, but not show symptoms), and with incubation periods as long as two weeks, family meet-ups cannot be considered universally safe," explains Wendy Goodall McDonald, M.D., a doctor practicing in Chicago, Illinois.

Can your families gather if you total less than 10 people?

Even if your families don't tally up to 10 people, there are other factors to consider, such as whether or not there are any at-risk members—like your grandparents or people with underlying health conditions including asthma or heart disease. "From what we've seen thus far, single household isolation is best—one family isolated within their home for a minimum of 14 days," says Jolene Brighten, N.D., a functional medicine naturopathic doctor and founder of Rubus Health.

What are some best practices for families currently in isolation?

During these unprecedented times, the safest way to protect your family, as well as your friends and loved ones, is to isolate. Here are some tips to ensure you're doing it the right way. Before going into isolation, Dr. Brighten recommends having at least 30 days of your prescriptions, supplements, or other items you require on a daily basis. "Also ensure you have activity items, cold and flu remedies, in addition to food to last your family for 14 days," she says. "Isolation works best when we can be confined to our home for a full 14 day period."

Avoid leaving the house unless absolutely necessary. Activities deemed necessary include going to get food, taking a walk outdoors, and seeking medical care. "As difficult as it may be, trips to the playground, park, gym, or any place where there may be contact with others or the surfaces they have touched need to be avoided," says Dr. Brighten. "Avoid public transportation and, if possible, work from home." When going to the grocery store, she recommends wiping down cart handles, the key pad for credit cards and trying to avoid touching handles with your bare hands or washing your hands immediately. "There is evidence the virus can survive on surfaces for a period of time, so keep distance from others while out and avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth."

And, of course, monitor each other's symptoms. If you do become sick, it's important to not only avoid contact with other family members, but also with pets if you live in a home with others who may come into contact with them, suggests Dr. Brighten. "In addition, try to keep your dog within your yard so that if you are in contact with them, they don't potentially take the virus to a neighbor," she says. "It is unclear if they could potentially spread the virus, but we are seeing certain governments advising on this as an additional precaution."

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