As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread rapidly, many are hearing the term “social distancing.” But what does social distancing actually mean, and why does it matter for the greater good of our society during this uncertain time?
Social distancing is staying away from crowds or congregations of 10 or more people with the intent of minimizing transmission of infectious disease outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance – approximately 6 feet or 2 meters – from others when possible.” Social distancing is recommended, because medical professionals know that the coronavirus can travel at least 3 feet when someone coughs or sneezes and can live on surfaces for hours to days.
Ellen Eaton, M.D., assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that social gatherings of any type with anyone other than your immediate family are no longer safe for the community.
“We now believe that a significant number of asymptomatic individuals are unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 in the community,” Eaton said. “This is especially concerning because we do not have the capacity or infrastructure to rapidly test large numbers of individuals at this time, so we are testing the symptomatic – those with fever or who have had close contact with an infected individual. In this scenario, the most effective way to halt transmission is to ask the entire community to practice social distancing.”
Social distancing – Don’ts
- Play dates for your children.
- Meeting small groups for dinner or drinks.
- Nonessential doctor and medical appointments, including dental and therapy.
- Hair and nail appointments.
- Nonessential help around the house (cleaning, cooking).
COVID-19 can live for hours on surfaces, elevator buttons, doorknobs and bathroom sinks, which may allow transmission to go unchecked. Eaton said these are all prime ways for us to transmit the virus to our hands and then to others.
For mental health and wellness, there are several ways to keep your life as normal as possible by doing the following:
Social distancing – Do’s
- Facetime your friends and family often.
- Keep a daily routine.
- Take part in activities, but remotely, such as virtual workout classes, book clubs or streaming activity options for your kids.
- Continue to pay your household staff, such as a housekeeper or dog walker, even though they will no longer come to your house. This will allow these individuals to stay home and safe with their families and support their own family members who may be at elevated risk.
- Consider drive-through takeout if your family is low on food.
How social distancing can protect your family and others
To help your kids understand about social distancing and how germs travel, Eaton suggests walking them around the house and pointing out fingerprints, which may help them understand that each point of contact is an opportunity for transmission of COVID-19.
“My boys leave fingerprints around the house and car, like most kids,” Eaton said. “Even though we don’t eat on the couch, I often find ketchup thumbprints there. I am also often wiping fingerprints off around the light switches, mirrors and car windows.”
Showing children all the ways they interact with their environment provides an opportunity to reinforce hand hygiene.
When it comes to convincing older parents/grandparents to stay put for a while, Eaton encourages others to inform the elderly of concerns and help them plan for risks. If older family members are not willing to take safeguard suggestions, Eaton encourages relatives to invest their energy and resources on other vulnerable groups and the organizations that serve them – such as the homeless, shelters or the incarcerated — because this may be more productive and beneficial for the community.
“I think many will not appreciate the risk and may be late to start distancing themselves until the virus is widespread in the community and they are potentially already infected,” she said.
Canceling current travel plans and trips is a big factor in positive social distancing.
“Road travel and all other activities should be reserved for only essential activities,” Eaton said. “COVID-19 is rapidly forcing shutdowns of cities and towns, including restaurants and entertainment venues. The last thing these communities need is another family in need of emergency food or health care in the event of an untimely restaurant closure or fender bender.”
Eaton said to save vacation for the warm and humid summer months, when it is hoped COVID-19 transmission will slow and everyday routines will return to normal.
For more information about COVID-19, visit UAB’s official resource page.