Social bubble confusion contributing to increase in COVID-19 cases

As the number of new cases of COVID-19 continue to climb in Ottawa, an epidemiologist worries forgotten messaging around what constitutes a social circle is partly to blame.

Ottawa Public Health reported 43 new cases Tuesday

Data shows younger adults and teenagers are contracting the novel coronavirus at higher rates than before. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As the number of new cases of COVID-19 continue to climb in Ottawa, an epidemiologist worries forgotten messaging around what constitutes a social circle is partly to blame.

Ottawa Public Health recorded 43 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, the highest single-day total since early May. More than half of those cases were in people under age 30.

Social circles — also known as social bubbles —used to be front and centre in the conversation about COVID-19, said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. "But once things started opening up, that way of thinking and talking has seemed to have vanished."

He said one's social bubble should be an exclusive, closed group of friends and family, up to a maximum of 10 people. They are the people you can hug, socialize with, and be intimate, without having to physically distance or wear a mask.

"It's like being in a self-contained space colony or a spaceship going to another star, where these are the only people you are going to be with, and interact with, and share germs with," he said.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says messaging around social circles has been lost as Ontario has begun to reopen its economy. (Submitted by Raywat Deonandan)

He's worried people are conflating rules around social gatherings with social circles. Under Ontario's Stage 3 reopening rules, gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed indoors, while up to 100 are allowed outdoors. Yet, people are still required to physically distance if they aren't part of the same social circle.

As businesses continue to reopen, maintaining a social bubble is more important than ever, said Deonandan.

"Failure to do so is why we have this this trend toward increasing cases."

Ottawa trend raising red flag

According to Ottawa Public Health, the rise in COVID-19 cases isn't related to either Stage 2 or Stage 3 of the province's reopening, but people engaging in higher-risk activities. One activity in particular — large indoor gatherings — is especially concerning, said Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health. People, mostly in younger demographics, have been socializing with others outside their social bubble, without physically distancing or wearing masks, he said.

Part of the problem stemmed from confusion around social bubbles and what they mean.

"People, you know, can potentially say 'we'll have that group of 10 and that group of 10 and each of my other 10s will have their own groups of 10 and of course that's just a recipe for transmission," he said.

Many new cases in Ottawa linked to indoor gatherings, OPH says

3 years ago
Duration 0:55
Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, says the rise in COVID-19 cases is not necessarily due to businesses reopening but to indoor gatherings among younger residents.

Similar trend across Canada

It's not just Ontario that's seen a surge in COVID-19 cases recently. Provinces across the country are showing an uptick in cases in people under the age of 30. 

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, believes the reopening of bars may have given people the impression the situation is more relaxed and that they don't have to take as many precautions.

"It creates a bit of a mindset that 'hey, things are going back to normal. Even though I'm not going, the bars and restaurants are open, so what the heck. Why can't I have a party with my friends at home?'," he told Power & Politics.

He said the federal government is looking at ways to educate younger people on the importance of physical distancing, hand washing, and wearing a mask. 

WATCH | Dr. Howard Njoo on keeping the curve flat

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Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo on the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Canada.

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