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What Is “Social Distancing” and Should We Be Doing It?

Much to the delight of germophobes and introverts, epidemiologists say social distancing can help prevent the spread of disease, including COVID-19

by University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
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Editor's note: Due to the frequent daily updates on the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, we encourage readers to refer to the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their local health authorities for the most up-to-date information and recommendations regarding preventive measures.

Newswise — As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, many are starting to consider scaling back exposure to people, a tactic called “social distancing” and a buzz phrase for people closely following the pandemic. Much to the delight of germophobes and introverts, epidemiologists say social distancing can help prevent the spread of disease.

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“We’ve reached the stage in pandemic response where we need to move from trying to contain the virus to protecting our vulnerable populations who are more likely to have severe consequences or die from infection—those over 65 years of age, those with co-morbid conditions, those experiencing homelessness, those in prisons and jails, those without access to care, etc.,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, epidemiologist with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health.

Troisi says social distancing has previously been successful in slowing the spread of disease.

“During the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic, we had a ‘natural’ experiment with the two cities of Philadelphia and St. Louis.  St. Louis shut down community gatherings, schools, churches, etc. early on before there were many influenza infections in the community. Philadelphia waited later into the pandemic to do so and did allow large gatherings at first. During that winter, while St. Louis did have cases of the flu, the rate of infection was significantly lower than in Philadelphia,” Troisi said.  

There is a wide range of options for someone wanting to begin social distancing, as it depends on how comfortable a person is taking risks, Troisi explains. So, what exactly does social distancing look like?

Before you go doomsday prepping at a wholesale retailer and hunker down with your canned goods at home, Susan Wootton, MD, and Luis Ostrosky, MD, infectious disease specialists at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, provide some helpful tips to consider about how to put the strategy into practice, while maintaining some aspects of normal life.

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  • Avoid handshakes or greeting with a kiss to avoid spreading germs via droplets.
  • Waves and nods are good alternatives to handshakes.
  • Eat at home instead of dining out.
    • Consider cooking or ordering takeout, or better yet, delivery from your favorite restaurant or meal delivery service.
    • Also, consider ordering groceries instead of shopping at the store.
  • Avoid large crowds.
  • Work from home.
    • Explore options to video conference for meetings.
  • Do home workouts instead of going to the gym.
    • If you do go to the gym, make sure to wipe down all equipment with sanitizing wipes and let it air dry before using.
  • Watch for school closures.
    • Some school districts have already closed due to concerns about COVID-19.
  • Postpone non-urgent travel.

So, when should we start “social distancing?”

If you have a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, Ostrosky recommends social distancing immediately. High-risk populations include people who are more than 65 years old, have underlying conditions, are immunocompromised, or pregnant.

Wootton says with any viral infection, risk depends on three main factors:

  • Your health
  • Level of contact with a confirmed or presumed case of COVID-19
  • Extent of transmission in your region or travel destination

Based on those factors, social distancing measures vary. No matter the extent of COVID-19 spread in your area, Wootton and Ostrosky also recommend sticking with common-sense measures:

  • Keep practicing good hand hygiene.
    • Washing with soap and water is best.
      • At least 20 seconds is needed to be effective.
      • Be sure to wash your palms, fingertips, and fingernails, then dry your hands completely.
    • Hand sanitizer is a good option to use while on the go.
      • Make sure it is at least 60% alcohol.
      • Make sure you use enough to keep on your hands for at least 20 seconds then air-dry hands completely.
    • Avoid touching your face and any surfaces you don’t have to.
  • Call your physician if you develop symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 (fever, cough, and trouble breathing) before you travel to their office. They will give you instructions on how to receive care without exposing others.

Stay informed by following updates on the UTHealth COVID-19 resources page, Harris County Public Health, Texas Department of State Health Services, CDC, and World Health Organization.