“Social distancing” is a phrase that’s dominating news headlines and working its way into everyday conversation. A month ago, most Americans had never heard of it. 

“It’s a strange term,” admits Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — one of the federal agencies that has been pushing the practice of social distancing as a way to slow the spread of the illness caused by the new coronavirus. 

“Usually when we talk about health and wellness, it’s all about connectedness and really reaching out and being together with community, family, friends, loved ones. But social distancing means trying to keep some space between you and other people,” Schuchat adds. 

For many communities across the country, this idea of space is quickly becoming the new normal. School districts are canceling classes, professional sports leagues are suspending their seasons, and crowded parks and museums are closing their gates. 

It may seem excessive — especially for those unaffected by the illness. But experts say it works. Here’s how.

What, exactly, is social distancing? 

Social distancing is not the same as quarantining or isolating oneself. It’s simply “trying to keep some space between you and other people” – about six feet of space, Schuchat explains. This is why many public events and activities where individuals are typically crammed close to one another are putting schedules on hold. 

“We think that infections are spread by respiratory droplets, spread when you’re within about six feet of another person. And so avoiding those circumstances where you’re going to be really in close quarters with lots of other people can help achieve social distancing,” Schuchat says. 

Space slows the spread 

A “key concept” of social distancing is slowing the spread of the epidemic in order to “decrease the pressure on the health care system,” Schuchat says. 

“You can imagine if 100 people were going to get sick over 100 days you would have a certain kind of pressure on the health care system. But if 100 people get sick all in the same day, it’s a different kind of pressure,” she says. 

Staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowded spaces — even if you are young, healthy and symptom-free — helps reduce the risk of infection in the high-risk population. 

Images of overloaded hospitals in Wuhan, China, and Northern Italy have illustrated just how dangerous an overwhelmed health care system can be during a pandemic. If society slows the spread, health care workers can “take better care of every individual person,” Schuchat says. 

Social distancing protects high-risk individuals 

Most people who get COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, experience mild to moderate symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, experts say. But for some people, the disease can be far worse. And early data show that older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease — are more likely to experience severe illness, even death. 

Staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowded spaces — even if you are young, healthy and symptom-free — helps reduce the risk of infection in the high-risk population. 

“Often before people even know they’re sick, they could spread the virus. And that’s probably why we’ve seen such rapid spread around the world,” Schuchat says. 

In essence: Keeping your distance from others helps keep others healthy. 

“And we’re focusing quite a bit on protecting the vulnerable,” Schuchat adds.  

What does social distancing look like? 

Washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes are among the most important tactics experts say can help keep COVID-19 at bay. But several regions in the U.S. are adding a few more measures to their list of public health precautions.

In areas where the coronavirus is spreading, people are being told to work from home, if they can, and to avoid crowded public spaces. If you need to go to the store, go first thing in the morning when it’s less likely to be crowded, Schuchat says. And try to keep a safe distance from other shoppers. 

Health officials are recommending that people avoid visiting nursing homes during the coronavirus outbreak, and instead check in with loved ones with a phone call or video chat. 

“And certainly check on your neighbors who may be keeping themselves at home” to reduce their risk of infection, Schuchat says. If you are healthy, ask “if they need any help with shopping, with groceries, with filling their prescriptions — anything like that,” she adds. 

Americans are also being advised to rethink nonessential travel, especially cruise travel where “you’re in really close quarters with a lot of other people and don’t have that much control of your space,” Schuchat says. 

How do you know when to practice social distancing? 

The number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. is growing, and so is the list of communities affected. That’s why the best way to know when you should start practicing social distancing is to stay informed about what’s happening in your area. 

“Things are really different right now in Seattle than they are in D.C. or in Nebraska. We have a pretty diverse country,” Schuchat says.

“This virus is new and we’re still learning about it, and we’re trying to apply the best information possible every single day to protect Americans. It’s a changing situation, so stay informed. Keep up with the news, especially in your local area.” 

 

Article written by Rachel Nania for AARP: https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/social-distancing.html

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