Why Social Distancing Is Critical to Slowing the Pandemic

Why Social Distancing Is Critical to Slowing the Pandemic

Slowing down the rate of novel coronavirus cases is critical. Here’s how you can play your part.

Updated on April 1, 2020 at 3:00pm EST.

President Trump extended social distancing guidelines through April 30, following dire projections from public health experts that COVID-19 will claim between 100,000 and 200,000 American lives. Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN the U.S. is seeing 'glimmers' that social distancing is helping to "flatten the curve," noting that the country has not yet reached a turning point amid ongoing efforts to curb the pandemic. 

A quarter of the world's population is now living under some form of lockdown, including nearly one in three Americans, to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Broad restrictions are in place across the country. Meanwhile, colleges and universities across the country are telling students to evacuate their dormitories. Many schools are opting to pursue virtual classrooms. Overall, school closures due to coronavirus have affected at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools and at least 55.1 million students.

Since the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, Americans have been bombarded with a flurry of cancellations and closings: the Boston Marathon has been postponed, Broadway is going dark, President Trump initiated a 30-day travel ban from Europe to the United States, the NBA and NHL have suspended the current seasons, MLB spring training was also halted and the NCAA announced that its “March Madness” basketball tournament would be cancelled.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also announced that most gatherings of more than 500 people are prohibited in his state. This includes the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which has been postponed for the first time in its 258-year history due to coronavirus concerns. At least 30 other states have also banned large gatherings and closed bars, restaurants, parks, theaters and other public places. 

U.S. health officials stress that the country has reached a "tipping point," warning that if pleas to practice social distancing and avoid social gathering of more than 10 people continue to be ignored, the country and healthcare system will be bombarded with a surge of new cases amid a dire shortage of hospital beds, ventialtors and other life-save equipment to treat all patients effectively. 

But what does “social distancing” mean, exactly?

Social distancing defined
COVID-19 is a highly contagious viral respiratory infection that, like the flu, spreads from person to person through direct contact or droplet transmission.

Contact transmission includes direct exposure to someone who is sick. This includes shaking hands, hugging or kissing. It can also occur when people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

Those who are sick can also infect others when contaminated droplets from their coughs or sneezes land in a nearby person’s mouth or nose. Droplets can also travel about six feet before settling on a nearby surface where they can persist for hours or, for some viruses, even days.

So, one of the steps that people can take to help curb the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing, or “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet) from others when possible,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These steps should be taken along with other preventive measures, including frequent hand washing, not touching your face with unwashed hands, staying home when sick, avoiding exposure to people who may be sick and covering coughs and sneezes.

Why distancing is so important
Social distancing is not only intended to reduce the total number of people who become infected with COVID-19 but to also help slow its spread, which could ultimately save lives.

Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist and microbiologist at Harvard University, tweeted it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60 percent of adults will be infected with COVID-19.

So far, most people who are infected with COVID-19 get better on their own. Only about 16 percent of COVID-19 cases result in severe illness and complications, including pneumonia and trouble breathing. Fewer still, about 5 percent, will develop very serious issues, including respiratory failure, septic shock and organ failure.

But the tally of confirmed cases continues to climb, and the number of severe or fatal cases already includes thousands of people.

If hospitals and urgent care centers in the U.S. and other parts of the world become burdened with a high volume of patients, the care given to those with severe disease or complications may be compromised. There may be a shortage of essential medical supplies, ventilators and other life-saving equipment.

In Italy, for example, a shortage of supplies and hospital beds is forcing healthcare providers to choose which coronavirus patients to save.

In short, social distancing can help slow the spread of the infection so that public officials and healthcare workers have time to respond effectively to the developing situation.

What you can do
Aside from the cancellation of major events and mass gatherings, there are things you can do each day to help protect yourself and your community.

Many businesses have banned non-essential travel. If you are debating whether or not to take a personal vacation or trip to visit friends or family, you need to weigh the risks and benefits of your decision. Flying on a plane with other passengers or being in crowded or closed settings increases your risk for infection, particularly if the ventilation is poor.

Remember: It’s not just about you. It’s also about spreading the infection to others, including those who may be at higher risk for complications.

Other ways to practice social distancing include working from home and immediately isolating yourself and calling your healthcare provider (HCP) right away if you develop symptoms, such as a dry cough, fever and fatigue, or if you suspect that you’re infected.

Before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, always call ahead and inform the medical staff that you’re having symptoms that you think may be due to COVID-19. Your HCP will work with your local public health department and the CDC to determine if you need to be tested for the coronavirus.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

New York State. “Governor Cuomo Announces St. Patrick's Day Parade and Celebration Committee Has Agreed to Postpone 2020 St. Patrick's Day Parade.”
Coachella. “Coachella.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim US Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Exposures: Geographic Risk and Contacts of Laboratory-confirmed Cases.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Preventing COVID-19 Spread in Communities.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19.”

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