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Social Distancing 101: How to stay safe from COVID-19

April 05, 2020
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Many people have been doing their part to fight the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) by socially distancing themselves from their neighbors, families, friends, and strangers.
But federal health officials are concerned that not all Americans are not listening to the warning.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing, the term often used by infectious disease and control specialists and public health officials, means staying away from other people. That includes avoiding crowds and maintaining a personal distance – approximately 6 feet – from others when possible.

It is the close contact between individuals, whether at home, at work, or out in the public that has resulted in the worldwide spread of COVID-19—what the World Health Organization calls a pandemic—noted Dr. Armando Paez, chief, Infectious Diseases, Baystate Medical Center.

“Maintaining a distance, especially from someone who is sick and is coughing and sneezing, is important because when that person coughs or sneezes, they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain the COVID-19 virus or any other virus,” Dr. Paez said. “If you are too close to them, then you can breathe in the droplets and become infected. Equally important is the fact that you could be infectious, yet have no symptoms, and spread the disease to others.”

How is this social distancing put into practice?

Governor Charlie Baker’s emergency order will be extended to May 4. It requires all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public. Those businesses and organizations not on the list of essential services are being encouraged to continue running – but remotely.

This order also prohibits gatherings of more than ten people. That means you shouldn’t invite friends and extended families over. Stay away from even people who look healthy, because they can be infected without knowing it.

Why is social distancing important?

The lack of social interactions have certainly driven some people stir crazy, but Dr. Paez said the sacrifice is worth it.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of social distancing in our efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19,” Dr. Paez said.

According to the CDC, older people are twice as likely to have serious illness from the novel coronavirus and they are advising people over 60 with underlying health problems to “stay at home as much as possible.”

That means keeping a social distance by avoiding air travel, movie theaters, family events, and crowded malls, for example, which applies to everyone – not just seniors.

“What we know from researchers is that the fatality rate is likely to be higher among older adults. As we age, our immune system weakens in its ability to fight off viruses and infections. Also, chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease and others make it harder for their already weakened bodies to cope with the additional strain placed on them by COVID-19,” Dr. Paez said.

Learning from our mistakes

One powerful example of the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic is the Biogen meeting held in Boston, which became the epicenter of the Massachusetts outbreak as the virus spread at an alarming rate through the two-day conference.

Yet an even more telling example back during the 1918 flu pandemic, as documented in Smithsonian Magazine, is when Philadelphia went ahead with a scheduled World War I parade in September of that year. There were 200,000 people lining city streets and within three days, the inevitable happened, every hospital bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was occupied with a flu patient.

What are some alternatives you can use?

Social distancing is tough for all of us. Whether you have kids to entertain, your own lack of cooking skills is getting you down, or it’s just boring without your friends, there are ways to make social distancing easier.

Here are some barriers to social distancing and how you can overcome them.

You have a doctor’s appointment scheduled.

Dr. Paez urges people to call their doctor before heading in for a routine checkup.

“They might suggest a later date when the virus is under control, unless your doctor is seeing you for an ongoing condition and needs to see you in person, or you have developed concerning symptoms that might require a visit to the office,” Dr. Paez said.

You see your neighbor across the street, and they want to greet you.

This can be a tricky one, especially if they are unaware of social distancing best practices.

“The handshake is out, at least for now. Many people over the years have already become more accustomed to saying, ‘I’m not shaking hands because I have a cold.’ But, we have to take that one step further and not shake anyone’s hand, even if you’re healthy. Handshaking results in transferring viruses and bacteria from one person to another, and that means the new coronavirus,” said Dr. Paez.

What to do instead? Give a bow, wave, do the elbow bump. People will understand.

You miss being with your friends.

Try doing this virtually!

Many people are turning to video chatting apps and platforms to chat with friends and have dinner “together.” You can even virtually watch movies with people through screen sharing.

Your kids are bored, and all the fun places you go to are closed.

Schools and daycares are temporarily closed, which means you need to provide entertainment for your children.

There are a bunch of things you can do to beat boredom:

  • Watch a livestream: Many organizations are streaming events on social media. Libraries are hosting virtual storytime, zoos are introducing us to their fun animals, craft stores are hosting how-to virtual classes, etc. Dolly Parton is reading bedtime stories for kids.
  • Get outside: This does not mean going to the park and having playdates with other children. But if you have a yard, let your kids play out in the sun. If you don’t, take a family walk around the neighborhood, making sure to stay six feet from other people.
  • Have a game night: Whether you have physical board games or have a videogame tournament, a little friendly competition can be fun for the whole family.

You don’t want to cook or go grocery shopping.

Many restaurants have been offering contact-less pick-up or delivery.

There are also online grocery delivery services you can use to avoid grocery stores where aisles can be tight.

Stopping the spread now

Social distancing isn’t easy, but it is doable.

“We all need to do our part to help prevent the spread of this deadly virus. The time to take action is now before it is too late, when as a country many are only now coming to the realization that social distancing is the only way to stop the community spread of coronavirus COVID-19,” Dr. Paez said.