What is social distancing? This practice is key to slowing the coronavirus, public health experts say
As the coronavirus-borne disease outbreak that began in China has become a pandemic, public health experts have advocated that the public engage in “social distancing,” a practice that is crucial in reducing the transmission rate of a highly contagious illness like the novel coronavirus.
Research has found that SARS-CoV-2, the formal name for the coronavirus causing the current pandemic, travels in droplets and could prospectively remain airborne up to three hours after someone who is infected has coughed or sneezed. Other studies have concluded that coronaviruses can remain alive on surfaces anywhere from a few hours to multiple days.
Given how easily the virus can spread, health officials have said that social distancing is crucial when it comes to staying healthy and avoiding spreading the virus to others.
How do you socially distance?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”
Social-distancing behaviors can occur on a large scale and a more individual scale alike. Large-scale measures that have already become commonplace include the cancellation of major events such as parades and sports tournaments and the closing of public spaces such as schools and churches.
Local officials in many parts of the country have temporarily instituted capacity limits on venues such as function halls and theaters. Companies have also followed these directives — the cinema chain AMC
, for example, has capped the number of tickets it will sell for movie screenings. “With this action, we are facilitating the ‘social distance’ between guests who still want to see movies on a big screen,” Chief Executive Adam Aron said in a statement Friday.
But Americans can take social distancing into their own hands. “Community interventions like event closures play an important role, but individual behavior changes are even more important,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in a guide to social distancing that the university released. “Individual actions are humble but powerful.”
Those who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 and have not knowingly come into contact with someone who does can leave their homes. But people generally should avoid crowded spaces, such as bars and grocery stores. Get-togethers like birthday parties and play dates for children should also be avoided.
And, when outside, healthy people should stay 6 feet away from other people whenever possible, especially if those around them seem to have symptoms.
The more extreme social-distancing measures a person can take include self-quarantining. This means staying home, not welcoming visitors into your home and avoiding sharing household items.
“In most cases isolation is voluntary, but federal, state and local health officials have the power to require the isolation of sick people to protect the general public’s health,” the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System noted. Indeed, countries such as China, Italy and Spain have resorted to large-scale isolation tactics to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
What’s the goal of social distancing?
The main goal of social distancing is to “flatten the curve,” which refers to reducing the peak number of cases at any one time during the outbreak. By flattening the curve through effective public health measures, the number of people simultaneously infected will be much lower than if no measures were taken. This ensures that the health-care system is not overburdened, though it can mean that the outbreak will be somewhat prolonged.
“Our health system will not be able to cope with the projected numbers of people who will need acute care should we not muster the fortitude and will to socially distance each other starting now,” Dr. Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs in Boston, wrote on Medium.
Previous studies have shown that social-distancing approaches were effective in the cities that implemented them in past pandemics, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic. And cities in China that more quickly implemented social-distancing measures during the current coronavirus outbreak had a lower number of cases than other cities, such as the outbreak’s epicenter, Wuhan.
But experts also advised that people take steps to reduce stress and anxiety while engaging in social distancing, since it can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Bitton suggested people take advantage of more virtual means of connecting with others, such as video chatting and online gaming. “Social distancing can take a toll,” he wrote. “After all, most of us are social creatures.”