In a coordinated effort to contain the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, government agencies have recommended against large gatherings for the foreseeable future. On Monday, March 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House issued a joint advisory recommending against any gatherings of 10 or more people over the next 15 days.
These recommendations have led to closures or cancellations of public schools, libraries, museums, universities, places of worship, restaurants, bars, and sporting events. This encourages voluntary “social distancing” — increasing the physical proximity between people to at least six feet — to slow the spread of the virus and contain this outbreak of COVID-19.
Why social distancing?
“Social distancing means limiting close contact with other humans,” says Emily Spivak, associate profession of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. “The principle is that if we avoid close contact, we can flatten the curve and reduce transmission of the disease.”
This applies in particular to vulnerable parts of the population: the elderly, those with health problems, or anyone with a compromised immune system. For low-risk and healthy individuals, even if you don’t feel ill, you could prevent infection simply by staying home.
A new study suggests that for each confirmed case of coronavirus, between five and 10 more undetected infections could lurk in the community. If those asymptomatic individuals interact with others, they could propel the pandemic throughout the population. “You’re staying home to protect the most vulnerable,” Spivak says. “It’s part of our civic duty.”
What should I do?
It’s simple: reduce unnecessary trips out of the house. Avoid public transportation and other highly trafficked areas. When you do leave the house, maintain a safe distance of at least six feet from other people to reduce contact. “Social distancing means not shaking hands,” Spivak adds. “Instead, do a wave or an elbow bump.”
Can I still go outside?
Of course. In fact, health experts say it’s important to leave the house for fresh air and exercise. “We’re not asking people to shove themselves inside their house and stay there for the next two months,” Spivak says. “There are ways to get outside like walking your dog, going to the park, riding a bike, doing yard work, or gardening.”
You may also need to leave the house for groceries, medicine, or other essential resources. But you can still keep yourself (and others) safe during and after these trips. If you do go to the grocery store, pharmacy, or gas station, buy as much as you need to avoid unnecessary return trips. And pick a time when the store is less likely to be crowded.
What should I expect when I do leave the house?
Be cognizant that any surface inside a public space could be contaminated. Wipe down any surface you might come into contact and disinfect your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if available. Or use gloves to touch high-traffic areas like cart handles, doorknobs, and credit card readers. Keep your cell phone stowed away so you’re not tempted to touch it—especially with gloves that may have already touched a contaminated surface.
Most importantly, when you do return home, wash your hands immediately with hot water and soap, then again before you eat, prepare food, or come into contact with other family members.
“Given the direction this virus has taken, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Spivak says. “But in order for us to limit how bad it gets, social distancing is probably the most important practice that all of us can do.”