En español | “Social distancing” is a phrase that’s dominating news headlines and working its way into everyday conversation. A month ago, most Americans had never heard of it.
“It’s a strange term,” admits Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — one of the federal agencies that has been pushing the practice of social distancing as a way to slow the spread of the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
“Usually when we talk about health and wellness, it’s all about connectedness and really reaching out and being together with community, family, friends, loved ones. But social distancing means trying to keep some space between you and other people,” Schuchat adds.
For many communities across the country, this idea of space is quickly becoming the new normal. School districts have canceled classes, professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons, and crowded parks and museums have closed their gates.
It may seem excessive for those unaffected by the illness. But experts say it works. Here’s how.
What, exactly, is social distancing?
Social distancing is not the same as quarantining or isolating oneself. It’s simply “trying to keep some space between you and other people” — about six feet of space, Schuchat says. This is why many public events and activities where individuals are typically crammed close to one another are on hold.
“We think that infections are spread by respiratory droplets, spread when you’re within about six feet of another person. And so avoiding those circumstances where you’re going to be really in close quarters with lots of other people can help achieve social distancing,” Schuchat says.
Space slows the spread
A key concept of social distancing is slowing the spread of the epidemic in order to “decrease the pressure on the health care system,” Schuchat says.
“You can imagine if 100 people were going to get sick over 100 days you would have a certain kind of pressure on the health care system. But if 100 people get sick all in the same day, it’s a different kind of pressure,” she says.
Images of overloaded hospitals in Wuhan, China, and Northern Italy have illustrated just how dangerous an overwhelmed health care system can be during a pandemic. If society slows the spread, health care workers can “take better care of every individual person,” Schuchat says.
Social distancing protects high-risk individuals
Most people who get COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, experience mild to moderate symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, experts say. But for some people, the disease can be far worse. And early data show that older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease — are more likely to experience severe illness, even death.
Staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowded spaces — even if you are young, healthy and symptom-free — helps reduce the risk of infection in the high-risk population.
“Often before people even know they’re sick, they could spread the virus. And that’s probably why we’ve seen such rapid spread around the world,” Schuchat says.
In essence: Keeping your distance from others helps keep others healthy.
“And we’re focusing quite a bit on protecting the vulnerable,” Schuchat adds.
What does social distancing look like?
Washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes are among the most important tactics experts say can help keep COVID-19 at bay. But several regions in the U.S. are adding a few more measures to their list of public health precautions.
In areas where the coronavirus is spreading, people are being told to work from home, if they can, and to avoid public places. The White House is urging all Americans to stay home as much as possible and to avoid groups of more than 10 people at least through April. Nonessential travel is also discouraged.
If you need to go to the store, go first thing in the morning when it’s less likely to be crowded, Schuchat says. And try to keep a safe distance from other shoppers.
Nursing homes have also barred visitors and nonessential employees during the coronavirus outbreak. Officials are encouraging family and friends to check in with loved ones with a phone call or video chat instead.
“And certainly check on your neighbors who may be keeping themselves at home” to reduce their risk of infection, Schuchat says. If you are healthy, ask “if they need any help with shopping, with groceries, with filling their prescriptions — anything like that,” she adds.
How do you know when to practice social distancing?
The government is urging all Americans to practice social distancing to slow the spread of the illness, but what that looks like may depend on where you live. The situation in New York, for example, may be different than things in Nebraska.
“We have a pretty diverse country,” Schuchat says.
“This virus is new and we’re still learning about it, and we’re trying to apply the best information possible every single day to protect Americans. It’s a changing situation, so stay informed. Keep up with the news, especially in your local area.”
Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 13, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent social distancing recommendations.