Experts: Social distancing difficult, but key to reducing COVID-19 spread

A family leaves a grocery store with supplies in San Francisco on Monday. Six Bay Area counties have requested residents to shelter in place and maintain social distancing for three weeks. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI
A family leaves a grocery store with supplies in San Francisco on Monday. Six Bay Area counties have requested residents to shelter in place and maintain social distancing for three weeks. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

March 17 (UPI) -- Social distancing may be inconvenient, and lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, but it can also help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, experts from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University said Tuesday.

The goal is to keep people as far apart as possible to reduce the chances that people have of spreading the disease to one another.


As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grows -- to more than 5,700, with at least one in all 50 states -- more and more cities are imposing curfews, banning gatherings of more than 25 people and ordering bars, restaurants, theaters, gyms, schools and other public spaces to close.

"In some ways, we're just starting to see the impact of the pandemic in the United States, but that doesn't mean we can't start to do something about it," Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said during a webcast on Tuesday. "I don't think people should be alarmed or panicked, but I think staying home, especially if you are sick, keeping physical distance between people and avoiding contact with high-touch surfaces are effective ways to help contain this virus."


She added, "Social distancing does work."

Data supports the idea

According to a review published last week in the Journal of Travel Medicine, social distancing is designed to reduce interactions between people in the community, where individuals may be infectious but not yet identified, or isolated.

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The approach is typically recommended as part of containment for diseases transmitted by respiratory droplets -- like COVID-19 -- say researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Alabama.

Although research on the effects of social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak is ongoing, a 2018 review of existing modeling studies published by BMC Public Health suggests they can reduce the spread of pandemic diseases by as much as 25 percent, as well as delaying and slowing their attack rate.

Rivers said that it's this last point that is particularly important, and it is part of what public health specialists mean when they talk about "flattening the curve" of COVID-19 spread.

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"The idea is to slow transmission," she explained. "If we can change the shape of the curve of new cases, we can extend the number of new cases we see over a longer period of time to lessen the burden on our healthcare system so that it can manage."


Distance doesn't mean isolation

Rivers emphasized that social distancing doesn't necessarily mean housebound and indoors -- except for those with symptoms of the virus. For those who are healthy, "getting outside, going for a hike, walk or jog can be beneficial for both your mental and physical health."

People practicing social distancing can, and should, move in-person activities -- conversations with family and friends, for example -- online, using tools like Skype and What's App. Rivers noted that she and her colleagues have moved their "water-cooler gossip sessions" at work online recently, as part of their social distancing.

"It's social distancing, not psychological distancing," she said.

For those that do go out to exercise or buy needed supplies, she advised, try to maintain a distance of roughly six feet from others and disinfect all surfaces "you come in contact with."

"The first thing I do when I get to the grocery story is wipe down my cart with an alcohol-based wipe," she added. "And wash your hands as soon as you get back home."

Everybody has to do it

These steps are important for people of all ages, even younger adults who aren't at high risk for severe disease with COVID-19, like seniors and those with other health problems, like heart disease and diabetes.


"Young people are the bridge to older people in pandemics," Rivers said. By practicing social distancing, "you're breaking the train of transmission."

Still, she added, older adults or those with underlying health conditions may want to stay at home as much as possible, and cancel all non-essential appointments, including routine doctors visits, until the risk for spread is reduced.

"We don't know how much longer this outbreak will last or where it will go from here," Rivers said. "And we're likely to see more cases for a while, even as we implement these strategies to contain the spread, because the incubation period for the virus is five days or more.

"So, it will likely take several days for the changes we're putting in place now to have an effect," she added. "However, I am encouraged by the measures put in place by many communities across the country, like closing schools and restaurants and encouraging people to stay home. It's the right thing to do."

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