Social Distancing: What It Is + How It Helps Prevent COVID-19

This is a highly effective intervention to disrupt a pandemic.

Before February 2020, most people had probably never heard of the phrase “social distancing,” yet a month later, it became the mantra for millions of people around the world. You’ve probably heard you should be practicing social distancing, but if you’re not yet sure what that entails, it’s time to fix that.

Social distancing generally means putting distance between you and others to slow the spread of an infectious disease (like COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus). It’s a public health intervention that helps avoid the transmission of contagious pathogens. 

For example, COVID-19 is a respiratory infection that’s spread by the tiny infectious droplets that sick people emit when they cough, sneeze, talk, etc. If these droplets get in the mouth, nose, or eyes of another person, they can become infected as well. Learn more about how COVID-19 spreads in humans here.

So how does it work? To practice social distancing, keep these guidelines in mind:

1. Keep at least 6 feet of distance between you and others.

This is especially important when you see someone who is actively coughing and sneezing. Since you could get COVID-19 by inhaling the respiratory droplets of someone who is already infected, you want to put a safe distance between you. 

That said, it’s possible for people to be asymptomatic yet contagious, so keeping a safe distance from everyone is encouraged when in public. This may require some awkward maneuvers, like spacing out in line while you’re checking out your groceries, or moving off the sidewalk to make space for the other couple walking.

2. Avoid large crowds.

Risk of exposure is much higher when you’re in a crowded, closed-in space, especially given the potential for people to be asymptomatic carriers. Plus, crowds are usually full of strangers, and you have no way of knowing how cautious they’ve been or whom they’ve been around during an outbreak.

Obviously, avoiding large crowds rules out attending massive concerts, crowded museums, professional conferences, busy malls, or festivals, but you may also want to reconsider other places people conjugate: restaurants, bars, churches, gyms, etc.

3. Avoid close contact with others.

See a friend or colleague on the sidewalk? Handshakes, high fives, and hugs are a “no” during a viral outbreak. Additionally, don’t share cups, utensils, etc. These are all easy ways for the coronavirus to transfer from one person’s body to another and spread the infection.

4. Stay home as much as possible.

In case it’s not obvious from the above tips, your best option is to just stay at home. If everyone commits to staying home as much as they possibly can, this limits the amount of exposure everyone has to potential carriers of COVID-19, thus reducing the spread.

Additionally, if *you* are a carrier and you don’t know it, staying home will help prevent you from accidentally infecting others while you’re contagious.

5. Quarantine for up to 14 days if you’re feeling unwell (or have been exposed to someone who tested positive).

The incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days, which refers to the time of infection and when you start showing symptoms (some people who are infected show symptoms much earlier). That means you could get the infection and be contagious for an entire two weeks before having symptoms. 

That’s why—if you live or have visited an area where people have tested positive—you are encouraged to self-quarantine for up to 14 days. That way, you can be confident that you won’t infect anyone else while you’re a potential carrier.

Moral of the story: Stopping a pandemic requires changing your routine—sometimes in major ways that are uncomfortable and unpleasant—but the benefits are saved lives.

Duration: 1:52. Last Updated On: March 20, 2020, 11:04 p.m.
Reviewed by: Mera Goodman, MD . Review date: March 19, 2020
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