Sleepovers and pandemics don’t really go together. They are a wonderful childhood rite of passage, what with all that pizza-eating, soda-drinking, movie-watching, and late-night giggling. But all those things (potentially sharing food and beverages! cuddled up next to each other! with respiratory droplets hovering in the air!) are also what make them risky.
However, there may be reasons you’re considering having other children sleep over in your home, or sending your child to a sleepover at another house. It may be out of necessity or desire, but either way, there are some things to consider and some precautions you can take to make the event at least a little bit safer.
First, consider individual risk levels
When we’re considering the risk levels involved in planning or participating in a sleepover, there are two aspects to consider, says Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Boston University. First, consider whether anyone involved—or anyone who lives in the homes of the families involved—are at a high risk due to their age or medical condition.
“If anyone in either of any of the families that are participating is at really high risk, that would be more of a reason to discourage a sleepover,” Murray says.
Secondly, families should also consider whether anyone involved works in a high-exposure environment, such as a hospital, nursing home or meat-packing plant. If that is the case, you might consider altering course and attempting a virtual sleepover instead.
Tighten your “contact budget”
Assuming everyone is at an “average risk,” Murray says you might then consider whether—or how—to proceed. Part of that should include tightening up your “contact budget” as much as possible:
A contact budget is a way to think about your overall risk in a holistic way, one which factors in all of your daily interactions. Just as we make a budget for our finances, we can think of our daily interactions, and our overall risk, in a similar fashion.
At the end of the day, when you think on all of the different people you came into contact with, and under what circumstances, what was the sum total of these interactions? Are there ways in which you can reduce your overall number of interactions?
“If you’re sort of gearing up to attend a sleepover, you would want to make sure that for at least a week—maybe two weeks—before that … the kids are really minimizing all of their contact so that there’s very little risk that they’re infected when they show up at the sleepover,” Murray says. “That could help reduce the likelihood that anybody’s infected and that there’s any transmission.”
And once the sleepover is done, wrap up the experience with another 7-14 days of limited “contact budgeting.” If 2-4 total weeks of limiting contact with others outside of the home isn’t worth it to them (or you) for one sleepover, that might help you make the decision on whether to participate.
Think, “person, place, time, and space”
When it comes to lowering the risk of infection, it’s helpful to think of all our interactions in terms of “person, place, time and space.” Allow me to explain how that applies to a sleepover setting:
We know that the more crowded a space is, the more likely the virus will spread. That means 2020 (and probably at least part of 2021) will not be the year your daughter invites over nine of her best friends for the Most Epic Sleepover Ever. Tell her she can pick one or two super-extra-special besties instead. (If she insists it’s gotta be nine, take it virtual.)
The risk assessment you did earlier also factors into this—how likely are those involved to have potentially bad outcomes from the virus, and how likely is it they may show up infected themselves.
“And are these people that you’re in contact with regularly?” Murray says. “If you’re having a sleepover with cousins that you’re also homeschooling with, that can be a much lower addition to your risk than if it’s someone you haven’t seen in six months, because that’s a contact you didn’t have before.”
We know that outdoor interactions are less risky than indoor interactions; this obviously gets tricky with a sleepover, where at least some, if not most, of the activities will take place inside. Much of the country is entering a season in which it’s too cold to, say, camp outside, but if that’s an option for you, it’s better than sleeping lined up side-by-side on the living room floor.
If you’re mostly keeping to the indoors, Murray suggests looking at ways to limit the sharing of objects and being cognizant of the potential for surface transmission.
“Is it possible to have a bathroom that the guests use, but that the rest of the household members don’t use to limit any transmission between household members and the guests?” she asks.
The more time you spend near someone, the higher the risk of transmission—which, again, is tricky when you’re talking about a sleepover. So the more you can limit the amount of close contact they have, the better. Keep them distanced from each other whenever possible by implementing the six-foot rule if they’re lounging and watching a movie and especially when they’re eating. (The more you can have them keep their masks on when they’re not eating or sleeping, the better.)
To limit the time they’re in close proximity, you might consider having the guest(s) sleep in a guest bedroom or separate area of the house. Or skip the sleep part altogether by making it an “un-slumber party”:
An un-slumber party is basically a late night pajama party. It has all the makings of a real slumber party—the pizza, the movies, the popcorn, the pajamas, the sugar, the shrieking—except that nobody actually sleeps over. You pick the kids up extra late when they’re just at the point of collapse. They’ve had their fill of slumber-party fun without the added stress of figuring out how to sleep on an air mattress or in a sleeping bag.
And finally, Murray says, we need to consider the environmental conditions of the location—particularly how small the space is and how well-ventilated it is. Opt to set them up in a larger room where you could open up a patio door or some windows for air flow, rather than in a smaller room with limited ventilation that will have staler air.
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