MILWAUKEE — How many connections does it take to get to Kevin Bacon?

It’s the age-old question at the heart of a classic parlor game. And it’s also a bit of a lesson in why an interconnected world means COVID-19 “bubbles” can be precarious, especially with the high infection levels we’re seeing across the country, says Ashley Z. Ritter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and chief clinical officer at Dear Pandemic.

“If there were five levels of separation between you and a COVID case before, that number is likely, in most cases, much smaller now,” Ritter says. “The chances of you interacting with somebody that has a COVID infection are higher because community transmission is so high.”

As the coronavirus has spiked, the danger of an infection in any given interaction has risen too. It’s not just enormous, maskless gatherings that can lead to more cases — even smaller get-togethers can pose risks

And, with many parts of the U.S. more open now than they were in the spring, everyday people are left to make a lot of tricky decisions about what to do and who to see.

“It kind of feels like navigating a minefield in some ways,” says Danielle Harms, a doctoral student in English at UW-Milwaukee. “Everyday decisions right now are so wrapped up in a million other things that it’s hard to disentangle.”

Harms says she’s mostly just been sticking with her household of four people: herself, her partner, their 2-year-old child, and Harms’ mom. But as the pandemic drags on, some have let more non-household members into their “pods” of close contacts — to help kids through school​, maybe, or to stave off the mental health tolls of isolation.

The goal of a pandemic pod is to address some social or practical needs while still keeping your exposure somewhat limited, Ritter says. You’re choosing to stick with the same small number of people — and accepting that you’ll be sharing germs as you’re spending time together.

The problem is that people don’t exist in a vacuum. If you choose to spend time with a friend, you’re adding not just that one person’s risk but also the risk of the people they’ve interacted with. And with the high rates of community transmission we’re seeing across the U.S., each extra exposure carries more risk than ever, Ritter points out.

“Often you'll hear people say, ‘Well, I only saw two other people socially outside of the things I had to do,’” she says. “Those two other people may or may not have had risk. And at this point in time, if they had any other contacts, there is definitely increased risk to both parties.”

One exercise Ritter recommends: Try tracing your own contacts, up to the third degree of separation.

Start with your first-degree contacts, or anyone you’ve been in close contact with for 15 minutes in the past 10 days. Think about your household members and anyone you’re seeing socially, Ritter says, but also anyone you have to interact with practically — like for work, school, or childcare.

From there, consider those people’s contacts (your second-degree exposures). If your child is in a classroom or learning pod, who are the other kids there? If your partner is going to work in person, who are their clients or colleagues?

Go another step and you get to your third-degree contacts: “Everyone in your child’s classmate’s dance class, your piano teacher’s roommate’s girlfriend, your nanny’s roommate’s drinking buddies, and all your spouse’s clients’ families,” as the Dear Pandemic team lays out

That network can add up quickly, and it’s why a couple extra interactions may be bringing in more exposure than you realize. If you have to pull out a huge sheet of paper to map your contacts, your so-called bubble may be more of a “germosphere,” according to the Dear Pandemic team.

Even so, Dominique Brossard, chair of UW-Madison’s life sciences communications department, thinks it’s not very reasonable to expect people to cut off all their contacts. Brossard has been seeing two friends as part of her own social pod since early on in the pandemic, and wants more people to be aware of how to keep their pods less risky — instead of facing what feels like an all-or-nothing choice.

“We need to have strong public health guidelines, but if they’re too strong, you know what happens? People don’t follow the rules,” Brossard says. “You have to keep guidelines that protect all of us, but also recognize the reality of people’s lives.”

Ritter acknowledges that, while adding contacts does increase your COVID-19 risk, it may mitigate other risks like educational delays or social isolation. Plus, she says some pods are used in practical settings — for example, health care workers at a hospital only interacting with a set group of coworkers on their floor, so that other pods can keep functioning if one has to quarantine.

An important factor in any type of pod is clear communication, according to both experts. “It's going to be absolutely dependent upon trust and transparency,” Ritter says.

From the beginning, everyone in the pod has to be explicit about their level of risk tolerance, she says. Laying out clear guidelines up front is important to avoid a “slippery slope” of mismatched behavior down the line. Harms says she knows of friends who have written up pod contracts to make sure everyone is on the same page.

And, since we’re often bad at thinking about risks to ourselves, it can be helpful to frame the precautions as for the good of the other people in the group, Brossard says.

“In the psychology of risk, very often, we feel that we are in control of ourselves,” Brossard says. “When you actually think that the other person is worried, it’s more like you’re taking care of the person — it’s not about assessing the risk itself.”

Having enough trust to believe that everyone in your pod is taking the same precautions you are, and that they will be honest about any exposures, is important, Ritter says. 

But she cautions against falling into the logical trap of the “halo effect” — that because you love your friends and family, you believe they wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, including passing on a COVID-19 infection. In reality, of course, caring about someone doesn’t make them immune, and loved ones can pass on the virus without knowing or meaning any harm.

“There’s sort of a switch in our mind that tells us something is safe, or safer, because it’s the people that we love and care about,” Ritter says. “That’s an error in our judgment that could get us into a little bit of trouble.”

Ritter advises that you should also be willing to reevaluate and take a step back as situations change. An activity that might have felt fine in the summer, when transmission rates were lower, now carries more risk, she points out. Extra layers of protection — like wearing masks and physically distancing — even within the pod can help reduce risk too, though they still can’t guarantee full protection.

Harms says she and her household pod are always keeping an eye on the numbers and the guidance, constantly talking over their precautions “as we go to bed at night, and over coffee in the morning.” She says they were more comfortable seeing additional loved ones in warmer weather, when they could stay outdoors. But as cases shoot up and temperatures drop, they’re now basically sticking to themselves. 

In her own decisions, Ritter says she thinks about risk as a sort of point system. Every couple of weeks, she re-evaluates how many “points” she’s using to fulfill basic needs like work, childcare, and education. When infection rates are high, those essentials take up more of her accepted risk level, she says, so she may take a step back from other activities — like cutting out open-air visits with family.

The best we can do is to try to be candid, empathetic, and objective, without falling into the “shame and blame game,” as Ritter puts it.

And If it feels difficult to have these conversations, that’s only natural. After all, most people are not, in fact, public health experts, even though loosening restrictions have placed more pressure on individual choices to stop the spread. 

“I appreciate that I don't have to stop and do a calculation of what the speed limit on my street should be in order to keep people safe,” Harms says. “I sometimes wonder why that isn't applied to COVID, because it can just be paralyzing to try to consider all these factors.”