Social distancing: What exactly does that mean and how does it work?

March 17, 2020
Social distancing: What exactly does that mean and how does it work?

As the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreads throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, health officials are asking everyone to practice social distancing. But what exactly is it? How does it work? And do you really need to keep your family in a bubble? Here's what health experts want you to know about social distancing and why it's so important right now. 

What is social distancing? 

Social distancing is the practice of keeping away from other people in order to lower your chances of getting sick or spreading disease. This generally includes staying at least six feet away from other people, says Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. 

“It's not just enough to stay home when you're sick; although, of course, that's important,” Troisi says. 

People can be infected with viruses or bacteria and pass them along without even realizing it — including to people who could get seriously sick or die as a result of that infection.  

“If people are not in contact with each other, then the virus has no place to spread,” she says.  

Slowing the spread of disease is crucial during a pandemic, says Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Ohio. If a disease spreads too quickly, hospitals can become overwhelmed and unable to provide care for everyone who needs it. Social distancing can slow the spread, which means the number of people seeking medical care will be staggered over time, rather than all at once. Troisi calls this process “flattening the curve,” because when the number of cases are charted over time, they make a long, low curve, as opposed to a sharp peak.    

What should you avoid while practicing social distancing? 

There isn’t a strict list of “dos” and “don’ts” while maintaining your social distance, Troisi says. How much you should stay away could change depending on how far the disease has spread (or could be spreading) in your community, who you might encounter and how likely you are to come into contact with someone who is sick. 

Generally speaking, however, Troisi says social distancing means keeping away from others — and staying home — as much as you can. This means avoiding: 

  • Large crowds like you’d find at malls, movie theaters, sporting events, amusement parks, concerts, conferences, parades or festivals. 

  • Non-essential travel, especially through airports, crowded bus or train stations or on mass transit (if at all possible). 

  • Big gatherings, such as weddings or parties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued guidance discouraging events with 10 or more people. 

If you absolutely have to be in an environment with a lot of people, try to take some extra precautions if you can, such as avoiding peak hours and washing your hands frequently or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after touching common objects. (Ex. money, door knobs or handrails). 

Sometimes the rules of social distancing might seem a little fuzzier. Here’s what Troisi and Baldwin say about some of the less-clear activities. 

  • Food delivery — probably OK: While eating at restaurants should be avoided during social distancing, Troisi says getting delivery of food or groceries is probably fairly safe, as long as you take some precautions. For example, ask the delivery person to leave your food outside your door and wash your hands thoroughly after touching bag handles or food containers, as well as before eating. 

  • Playdates — cancel: Staying at home can make everyone a little stir-crazy, but playdates — even small ones — are not a good idea, Baldwin says. You never know who might be infected but not have any symptoms. 

  • In-person visits — swap for video chats: As much as your kids love seeing grandma, you might want to scale back on visiting people outside your home, especially if they are at higher risk for getting seriously sick. Baldwin recommends opting for video chats instead. 

  • Going outside — OK: Staying home as much as possible doesn’t always mean you have to stay inside. Those practicing social distancing are often still able to ride their bikes, take a walk and play in the yard, as long as they are able to maintain their physical distance from other people, according to Troisi and Baldwin. 

  • Non-essential appointments and activities — cancel: Even if hair appointments, gym classes, piano lessons, etc. don’t involve large numbers of people, you still might want to cancel them to limit your exposure to others and theirs to you. The one exception to this might be well-child visits at your local pediatrician’s office. If your child has a vaccine appointment coming up, call their doctor’s office for guidance on whether you should go or postpone. 

Social distancing vs. quarantine vs. isolation 

While the words “quarantine” or “isolation” are sometimes used to describe social distancing, they’re actually different levels of safe health practices. Social distancing, quarantine and isolation all involve limiting contact with others, but they involve distinct circumstances and require different levels of distancing, Troisi says.  

  • Social distancing is when healthy people — who have not yet been exposed to the disease — limit their contact with others to lower the chances they’ll become infected and (perhaps inadvertently) pass the virus onto others. This is usually done collectively, as a community, and for an undefined amount of time to slow outbreaks.   

  • Quarantine is when currently healthy people who have recently been in contact with someone who was sick with the disease, or suspect that they were, stay home and avoid all contact with other people just in case they’ve been infected. This is usually done for about two weeks or for however long health officials advise. 

  • Isolation is when sick people who know they have the disease — or who have symptoms consistent with the disease — cut off all contact with other people, except medical providers, until symptoms go away or they are no longer contagious. This includes isolating themselves away from family members by staying in a separate room, if possible, or at least six feet away from others in the household.

What happens with mandated quarantine?

Mandated quarantines are rare, but they can happen. If someone has been exposed to a disease — or might have been — and is considered a high risk to the community at large, health officials at the local or federal level might require them to go into quarantine, Troisi says. 

These types of quarantines are generally done in a designated facility, such as a hospital, where a guard might be on duty to ensure the individual doesn’t break quarantine protocol. Medical providers typically check on them periodically to monitor any symptoms, and if someone becomes sick, they are typically moved to a different space for isolation. 

According to the CDC, these types of quarantines are generally uncommon and haven’t happened on a large scale since the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. 

A note on maintaining mental health during social distancing

Social distancing can be stressful for kids and parents alike, Baldwin says. So it’s crucial that families take steps to protect their mental health, in addition to their physical health.  

“Life as we know it will be very different,” she says. “Families will be together more than normal without typical outlets of school, play dates and other group outings.” 

Keeping a routine can help children feel like they have a sense of control, Baldwin says. And parents should do what they can to manage their own mental health so they can help their children handle the change. 

A key thing to remember, Baldwin says, is that while social distancing can last weeks or months, it’s only temporary. 

“We will not be asked to practice social distancing forever,” she says. “This, too, shall pass.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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