with the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) upon us, you’ve likely heard health officials, celebrities, and even the friends you were supposed to go out for drinks with tonight, stress the need for social distancing. But as a relatively new phrase, there maybe some confusion over what it means and why it’s important for us to follow right now.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 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.” It’s the reason many colleges are finishing out the spring semester online, Broadway shows are on hiatus, and cinemas are only allowing half as many people in as usual.
The best way to better protect yourself from developing COVID-19 are things you can do right now: wash your hands, avoid large crowds, and stay home if you feel ill.
It’s all in an effort to try and minimize the number of germs that pass from one person to another. “Anytime we interact with other people, we exchange microbes — bacteria or viruses,” says David Larsen, Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist and assistant professor of public health at Syracuse University. “Each interaction carries a probability of a transmission, and in the case of an outbreak of an infectious disease, if you decrease those interactions, you can decrease the probability of transmission events.” Essentially, if a person practices social distancing, they can protect themselves, he says, but if an entire community practices it, you can possibly stop a virus in its tracks.
In fact, there’s a graph circulating online that features two bell curves: one that goes up and down steeply past a horizontal line indicating the capacity of our healthcare system (illustrating the current track we’re on), and one whose rise and fall is more gradual and doesn’t surpass that horizontal line (illustrating what might happen with more protective measures in place).
Since our healthcare industry can handle only so many severe cases at once, if COVID-19 spreads too quickly, we’ll be in big trouble: Experts say that 10-20% of people with the disease may require hospitalization. “With that number of hospitalizations, you can overwhelm the system and get into situations where there’s insufficient care available for all the people that need it,” says Larsen. “We want to avoid being in a position where doctors are trying to decide who gets a ventilator, where there’s not enough available for the people who need it to continue living, which is happening in Italy.” Healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, technicians, etc.) may also start to get sick, bringing down the quality of care and triggering a rise in fatality, he notes. If you wait for the curve of the graph to rise before you take precautions, it could be too late to make a difference, but the right precautions can “flatten the curve.”
But even if you’re feeling fine, or aren’t in the group of higher-risk people, practicing social distancing is important. One problem with COVID-19 is that some people, especially those who are younger, have only mild symptoms or none at all. “New science suggests that people can spread the virus before they are symptomatic,” says Larsen. “There’s what’s called a latency period between the time when you are infected and when you exhibit symptoms.” This means that someone who seems pretty healthy could infect others without even realizing they carry the virus.
Unfortunately, testing isn’t widespread right now so we don’t know exactly who has COVID-19, which makes it more difficult to contain. “It is believed that one positive person can transmit the virus to two or three other people, which results in those two to three affecting more people,” says Peter Gulick, D.O., professor of medicine at MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. “The mild or asymptomatic are high-risk as they are not sick enough to know to stay away from crowds, whereas those who feel sick usually visit a doctor or ER. We can mitigate the spread if we disassemble the crowds.”
Remember: “If you’re exhibiting symptoms, call your doctor and let them know and decide on a course of action,” says Dr. Gulick. Even if you don’t have symptoms, but you’re an older adult or a person who has heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, you’re at a higher risk of developing life-threatening complications from COVID-19 and should follow these precautions from the CDC.
owever, social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t leave your house, or have fun with friends. It’s important to remember to practice it within reason. “We need to do things, we need to go out and be human,” says Larsen. “We need food and we need social interaction to be healthy. But voluntary things like attending large events, large gatherings, and voluntary travel — we should try to decrease those.”
Instead of going out to drinks with friends, try doing a virtual hangout where every can still interactive with one another. And rather than taking a spin class at your gym, go for a jog outside. Remember, you’re not just doing this for yourself, you’re helping your entire community, especially people who are at higher-risk for serious illness from COVID-19, including older adults, and those who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by say, working from home, or if you’re experiencing anxiety over the coronavirus, there are certain things you can do to keep yourself healthy, including: eating well, getting enough sleep, and communicating with friends and family via phone and text.
For helpful resources regarding coronavirus, visit: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 fact page and The National Association of County and City Health Officials’ directory of local health departments.