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.
10 Examples of Social Distancing
Here are a few ways that the government, institutions, and companies have enacted social distancing measures:
- Closing schools and universities and switching to online learning
- Moving to work from home
- Scheduling meetings on video chat or the phone
- Postponing concerts, conferences, and meetings
- Canceling sports games or performance arts
- Closing restaurants, movie theaters, bars, clubs, and other gathering places
- Instituting measures such as shelter-in-place
- Staying 6 ft away from others at all times, especially when flying during coronavirus
- Wearing a face covering, such as a face shield, in public or with others
- Ordering things delivered rather than leaving the house
- Avoiding public transportation
Social Distancing Definition
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.
Can I Go Outside?
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:
- Stay a minimum of 6 ft from others
- Not gather in groups
- Avoid crowded places
- Wear a face mask when possible
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.
Why Social Distancing Works
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.
Results from 3 Places with Social Distancing Policies
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.
- New York: recent reports have indicated a drop in deaths, though New York Governor Cuomo says that it is too early to assume that this is a trend. The increase in the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the city has also fallen from 20% to 4% increase.
- Northern California: San Francisco was the first city in the country to order residents to shelter-in-place. As a result, the city has not experienced the rapid growth in coronavirus cases experienced elsewhere, such as in Los Angeles.
- Seattle: The home of 37 of the coronavirus’s first 50 U.S. deaths, Seattle has succeeded in stemming the rate of infection fro one infected person from an average of 2.7 people to 1.4 thanks to lockdown measures, according to the New York Times.
What Percentage of the Population Is Practicing Social Distance?
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.
Do We Have an Official Social Distancing Policy?
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:
- San Francisco implemented the first shelter-in-place order and has, for the time being, flattened the curve.
- By contrast, Florida has come under fire for not shutting down beaches until late March.
- Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri have not issued stay at home orders at the time of writing, despite significant increases in COVID-19 cases.
Social Distancing vs. Shelter in Place vs Quarantine
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.
- Who: Everyone
- What: Stay a minimum of 6 ft away from others, only go outside for essential activities, avoid crowds, wear masks when possible.
- When: Loosely implemented in March across the United States.
- Where: In public and at home, but especially when outside the house for essential activities. Social distancing guidelines are in effect across the United States, Canada, and much of Europe and Asia.
- Why: To slow the spread of COVID-19, especially from asymptomatic people who may not know that they are infected.
Shelter-in-Place / Stay-at-Home
- Who: Everyone
- What: Stay at home and (typically) do not go outside unless essential.
- When: Implemented following an increase in the rate of COVID-19 infections, or as a preventative measure.
- Where: Some variation of shelter in place or stay-at-home suggestions for over 311 million Americans in a minimum of 41 states, according to the New York Times.
- Why: It is a more drastic step to stop the spread of COVID-29 from overwhelming the healthcare system.
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.
- Who: Those why nay have been exposed to coronavirus
- What: Stay at home in isolation without contact with household members. Ideally, those in quarantine will sleep in a separate room and use a different bathroom than healthy household members.
- When: Following travel (especially to a COVID-19 hotspot such as NYC), potential exposure to COVID-19, a medical professional's suggestion, a diagnosis, the exhibition of COVID-19 symptoms… for a minimum of 2 weeks.
- Where: Most countries have imposed self-quarantine or mandatory quarantine measures.
- Why: To protect those in close proximity to an infected person and the community from infection.
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.
- Who: Those who are taking precautions against COVID-19, especially the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions, or those who live with people who are at higher risk.
- What: Imposing self-quarantine without exposure to the virus
- When: It is a personal decision to be made with a medical professional
- Where: Around the world, especially in places with a high rate of infection such as the United States, Italy, Spain, China, and Korea.
- Why: To protect those who are at risk of COVID-19 infections, complications, and death.
Social Distancing and Other Precautions, Explained
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 place is 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, quarantine requires 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.
How Long Should We Expect to Social Distance?
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:
- If 60% or more of the population gets coronavirus, that would create something called population-level immunity, which would slow person-to-person transmission.
- The development of a vaccine or treatment that could be widely used. Keep in mind that vaccines can take between a year and much longer to develop.
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.
Social Distancing and Mental Health: How Does It Affect Us?
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.
Isolation During Coronavirus
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.