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Social distancing policies has swept the nation in the past few weeks as we try to stem the rate of infections. But how do you define social distancing, why does it work, and how long can we expect to social distance? Though it disrupts our lives, friendships and potentially has mental health impacts, social distancing is a crucial step in flattening the curve. Here’s what you need to know about isolation guidelines.
Here are a few ways that the government, institutions, and companies have enacted social distancing measures:
The exact definition of social distancing is creating physical distance between yourself and other people, especially in public places. In short, it means reducing face-to-face contact with anyone whom you do not live with, staying away from crowds, and not gathering in groups.
Social distancing may not prevent you from going outside during a pandemic, especially for essential tasks such as buying food, exercise, caring for a pet, getting medication or childcare. During these activities, however, it is crucial to:
Social distancing doesn’t mean that you cannot go outside. The intent is to strongly discourage people from going outdoors for non-essential activities.
Social distancing guidelines have been instituted around the world because of how easily coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads from person-to-person. It’s especially important because the virus is known to spread even before someone exhibits symptoms.In other words, people who may not appear to be sick could be carrying the virus.
Though it’s inconvenient and has shown to affect mental health (more on that later), social distancing policy has shown to work in slowing — not necessarily stopping — the spread of coronavirus.
Why does social distancing work? Coronavirus is an extremely transmittable disease. Though it can jump from person-to-person from cough and spit particles, the virus may also be transmittable through asymptomatic people.
In other words, isolating people with symptoms has not been sufficient when it comes to slowing the outbreak.
In Seattle, New York, and Northern California, three regions that have implemented shelter in place orders, meaning that residents are not to leave their homes except for necessities, social distancing has slowed the rate of infection.
Figures vary state-to-state and city to city. A nation-wide poll from late March found that over 70% of Americans were avoiding restaurants and crowded places. 68% also said that they were avoiding small gatherings.
Some regions, especially those hardest hit by the pandemic, have higher levels of social distancing. One survey found that 94%, 95% and 96% of residents were social distancing in Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, respectively.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does mandate that Americans stay at least 6 ft apart and has recently encouraged people to wear face masks in public.
However, official social distancing guidelines have been set by individual state legislators, rather than on a federal level, though the federal government is encouraging people to stay home, wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, and wear masks when possible.
State-by-state measures account for a wide-range in policies and different rates of infection. For example:
State shave instituted measures for all three of these terms, but what exactly do they mean and how do they differ?
Note: These policies and their enforcement vary widely, and are not always clear. The following is an opinion and not meant to be taken as legal or medical advice. Please see the CDC for up-to-date-information.
In many states, the distinction between shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders is blurred. It may be the case that some governments use “stay-at-home” verbiage because it seems less severe than shelter-in-place, though the concept is essentially the same.
Though more of a general term, isolation may refer to people who choose to self-quarantine because they have a higher risk of COVID-19 infection.
The definition of social distancing does not prevent someone from going out in public for exercise, buying food and doing other essential tasks like going to a pharmacy. It only mandates that you stay a minimum of 6 ft apart from people, wash your hands as frequently as possible, avoid groups and crowds, and wear a mask when possible.
Shelter in placeis a state-mandated order to stay at home. It is sometimes imposed during a natural disaster, like a blizzard or hurricane. It mandates that everyone stays indoors, though can vary from state-to-state.
By contrast, quarantinerequires staying in-doors and avoiding all contact with people whom you live with. When possible, people in self-quarantine should use a different bathroom. Quarantine is reserved for people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 wheres those who are at extreme risk of illness may be in a form of self-quarantine or isolation. Quarantine lasts a minimum of 2 weeks, which is the potential incubation period for the virus.
Medical experts have not been able to answer this question. They have, however, presented several scenarios that could lead to the end of COVID-19 policies. Here are a few possible outcomes that could put an end to social distancing within the next 1–2 years:
Of course, there are other factors that could lead to relaxed measures in the nearer future — within months rather than years. It is all speculation at this point. Please see your state government websites or the CDC for up-to-date information.
Maintaining a physical distance between people is an effective way to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but not without cost: Many, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are concerned about the mental health impacts of social distancing.
Isolation may lead to mental health issues such as exhaustion, insomnia, stress, anger, substance abuse, and other PTSD-like symptoms.
The effects on loneliness, in general, are well-known in the scientific community. One review that pre-dates COVID-19 of over 3.4 million participants found that the likelihood of dying (during a 7 year period) was 29% more for those who were socially isolated.
The impacts of prolonged isolation are not to be downplayed. If you are feeling lonely please contact a mental health professional, a federal or state-level mental health hotline, or reach out to a loved one.
According to state and federal officials, isolation, maintaining physical distance, hand washing and wearing a face mask may help slow the spread of COVID-19. Not only may these measures keep people healthy, but they reduce the stress on our healthcare system, otherwise known as flattening the curve.
This is essential for protecting the lives of our healthcare workers and those suffering or at risk for COVID-19.
If you have any further questions, please see the CDC website or your state guidelines. Stay healthy.