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Why More Experts Prefer 'Physical Distancing' Over 'Social Distancing'

Whatever it's called, keeping a safe distance slows the coronavirus spread

People standing far apart in line

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

En español | Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials around the globe have zeroed in on one action to slow the spread of the virus: social distancing. But now, some experts are swapping that phrase for another that they say more accurately defines the concept.

"We're changing to say ‘physical distance,’ and that's on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization (WHO), said at a recent WHO press conference.

The coronavirus is thought to spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, which is why keeping at least 6 feet of space from one another is “absolutely essential” to prevent infection, Van Kerkhove explained. “But it doesn't mean that, socially, we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.”

Remaining socially connected while physically distant

Sociologist Jennie Brand is a champion of WHO's change. Social distancing “usually conveys some kind of individualism, social disconnection and often exclusion,” Brand said. And during a time when anxieties are running high, preserving social connections has never been more important.

"The term ‘social distance’ doesn't necessarily convey that strong point that we really want to maintain social cohesion, social inclusion and maintain our social relationships,” said Brand, a professor of sociology and statistics and director at the California Center for Population Research at UCLA. Replacing it with the phrase “physical distancing,” however, is “an important distinction just to drive home that people need connectedness right now,” she added.

One way to stay in touch with friends and family during a time of physical separation is with technology. A quick email, text, phone call or video chat “can help you and your loved ones feel less lonely and isolated,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. Sending letters or care packages in the mail is another way to keep relationships strong.

"Just because we must stay apart does not mean that we should be alone,” Altha Stewart, M.D., past president of the American Psychiatric Association, said during AARP's April 9 Tele-Town Hall. “Use whatever means — technologically or personally — that you have to remain connected to people.”

Staying in touch with others not only helps to fight feelings of isolation, but also can help attack disease. Research shows that strong social connections can lower stress, improve health outcomes and even lead to a longer life.

"The quality of social relationships affects mental health, health behavior, mortality risk — all these things in a time when we're fighting a virus, it becomes even more important that we maintain that social connection,” Brand said.

Distance is working to slow the spread

Regardless of what it's called, experts say distancing guidelines are working.

States that implemented strict measures early in the outbreak, such as California and Washington, “are ahead of the curve in terms of flattening the curve,” Leonard Marcus, founding codirector of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said in a call with reporters on Friday.

During a recent White House coronavirus task force briefing, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also pointed to signs of improvement. He attributed the “rather dramatic decrease in the need for hospitalizations” from severe coronavirus infections to the public's adherence to “physical separation” guidelines.

"That means that what we are doing is working, and therefore we need to continue to do it,” Fauci added.