The Biggest Questions We All Have About Social Distancing, Answered By An MD

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A woman lies on her couch while social distancing. Practicing social distancing can have a huge impa...
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Across the globe, communities are shutting down with one goal: stop the spread of coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus spreads through close contact (defined as within six feet) with infected folks; if you eliminate that close contact through social distancing, you slow the spread of the virus, and you give hospitals enough room to actually tend to people who are sick. Yes, this does mean a lot more time at home with your roommate who refuses to do her dishes (or won’t shut up about Love Is Blind), but it also means protecting the vulnerable people in your neighborhood.

The CDC recommends social distancing as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, now that the virus is circulating within communities. Previously, when the virus was being brought in by travelers, testing and isolating those travelers was thought to help contain it. Now, the best way to limit the damage done by coronavirus, public health experts suggest, is by canceling events and staying home as much as we can.

Still, since none of us have been through a pandemic of this scale before, there’s a lot of questions about what social distancing actually means for you, personally, like today.

What Is Social Distancing During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD’s Senior Medical Director, tells Bustle that “anything that you as an individual or the community is doing to limit the spread of an infectious disease” counts as social distancing. Depending on the size and density of your community, that could mean encouraging people to work from home, postponing large gatherings and celebrations, closing nonessential businesses, or even closing essential ones like schools. Per the CDC, social distancing means “remaining out of congregate settings [crowded public places], avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately six feet or two meters) from others when possible.”

If that sounds maddeningly vague, it’s because implementing social distancing can look different in different communities, and depending on your individual needs. “The idea is to limit your movement outside with other people to what's truly essential,” Cassoobhoy says. “If you need to go to work, then go to work. If your school’s open, go to school. If you want to exercise, get your grocery shopping done, keep doing all of that — just be very cognizant of doing things efficiently.” She says that can mean doing your grocery shopping at an off time, or doing two weeks’ worth of shopping all at once instead of going to the store every few days.

How Social Distancing Affects The Spread Of Coronavirus

Limiting your social interactions to what’s truly essential means reducing the opportunities the virus has to jump from person to person. Around 20% of coronavirus cases will require hospitalization, per The New York Times. Social distancing helps slow the transmission of the virus, meaning those who will need hospitalization don’t overwhelm our (already fragile) health-care system by flooding in all at once. If you’ve seen that “flatten the curve” chart going around the last couple days, that’s the basic principle; social distancing can lower the burden on hospitals, so that medical professionals can deal with fewer cases at once.

“You're going to slow the spread of an infection and [have] more time to prepare to fight the infection,” Cassoobhoy says.

What’s The Difference Between Social Distancing, Isolation, & Quarantine?

It’s amazing that people are taking their social distancing measures seriously, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the same as isolation or quarantine — aka, you don’t have to behave as if you’ve been exposed to coronavirus yourself.

“Isolation is the term generally used when someone is actually sick,” Cassoobhoy says. “That person would stay in their space, and other people would help by bringing in supplies from the outside world ... but that would be the limit of people that the person’s interacting with. Quarantine is for people who have a known exposure or one degree off, depending on what public health officials say.” Quarantine is typically a precautionary measure to see if the exposed person does develop symptoms, not necessarily that they’re sick. “Those people need to stay home and get help from others to get their supplies in and out.”

Claire*, 36, is isolating herself while she waits for the results of a coronavirus test, having shown symptoms for a week. “I’m staying connected from afar and not going too stir-crazy by reaching out to friends and talking on the phone instead of texting and checking in on elderly friends to make sure they have supplies.” She also has been syncing up watching her favorite TV shows with her friends to stay social.

In a social distancing situation, it’s OK to go out and conduct essential business like getting groceries — but again, being mindful of limiting that exposure and maintaining good hygiene is paramount.

Can You Visit Family Or See Friends During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

One of the more serious questions people have about social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak is whether it’s safe to visit family, especially older relatives, or friends during the outbreak. Again, the answer is highly variable.

“It's going to depend from person to person, according to [their] health and their parents’,” Cassoobhoy says, as well as what’s happening in your community. “If your community hasn't had cases and there isn’t strict guidance from the public health department then, sure, go visit your mom and hang out, but keep up the usual hand-washing techniques.”

Cassoobhoy adds that keeping a six-foot distance is wise to avoid close contact. “Maybe stop the hugging and the kissing and focus on other ways of showing love or communicating.” For relatives who are at a higher risk of illness, whether that’s due to being over age 60 or dealing with a chronic condition, it may be wise to check in on them via FaceTime.

In terms of visiting friends, it really depends on your definition of “essential” movement. “We're not talking about removing ourselves from social interaction,” Cassoobhoy says. But if you can call a friend instead of taking public transportation cross-town to their house, that’s probably the move here. “If you were supposed to go to a book club, try doing it online so that you still have that connection with others and you can see their faces,” she suggests. Ultimately, creating more movement defeats the purpose of social distancing, so try to keep those interactions virtual, if you can.

Can You Go Out To Eat, Do Laundry, Or See Movies During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

It all depends on your definition of “essential” and your community’s public health guidelines. In New York City, gatherings of more than 500 people were banned as of March 12, and restaurants and bars with an occupancy limit of less than that need to cut their capacity in half, per The New York Times. Ostensibly, this is to limit the opportunities for close contact, or contact within six feet of each other.

“Make decisions about how large the crowd is, and then, most importantly, keep up your hand-washing and cleaning,” Cassoobhoy says.

While restaurants remain open, you can absolutely support your local businesses to your comfort level, whether that’s ordering delivery or takeout, or contributing to crowdfunding campaigns to support bartenders or other tipped workers. But again, limiting essential movement is key. If you have to do your laundry at a laundromat — arguably a pretty essential task — do it. But you may want to skip a crowded movie theater or concert venue.

Can You Take A Walk While Practicing Social Distancing?

It bears repeating that social distancing is not the same thing as isolation or self-quarantine. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you have to never, ever, ever leave your apartment. Be mindful about keeping that six-foot distance between people, which shouldn’t be too difficult if you’re taking a walk around the park near your house. Plus, access to nature really does improve your immune function, as one study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2015 confirmed.

How Do You Reduce Anxiety When You’re Practicing Social Distancing?

All of this information (on top of coronavirus news feeling like the only conversation happening online and off) can be overwhelming or even scary. Staying cooped up at home doesn’t necessarily help. Cassoobhoy stresses that keeping perspective throughout this period can really soothe coronavirus anxiety. “It's important to remind ourselves that this is a temporary time,” she says, adding that the technology we have today is unprecedented in terms of keeping us connected. “Avoid the stuff that’s giving you anxiety … but use social media to connect with people who have the same interests that you do.”

Maintaining a routine and a semblance of normalcy can also create paths to certainty in an uncertain world. “Create a schedule at home, that routine will help,” Cassoobhoy says. Further, utilizing the time you have from not commuting to increase your self-care can also be grounding. “Take a break in the evening to cook a meal, and go to bed at a regular time.” And if you need extra support, you can see if your therapist will offer video or phone sessions, or get in touch with services like Crisis Text Line for 24/7 support.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

Expert cited:

Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD’s Senior Medical Director

Study cited:

Kuo M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1093.

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