“Social distancing” is the new media buzzword, but why does it matter for healthy populations? Although about 80% of COVID-19 cases do not require hospitalization and can be treated at home, it is vital that even those who have a low risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms start practicing social distancing now, for several reasons. The first and most important reason is that people with mild symptoms, and even those with no symptoms at all, can still spread COVID-19. Although you might feel totally healthy, you could still be contagious, so going out to a restaurant, bar, or continuing nonessential travel puts vulnerable populations at greater risk for infection.
Social distancing also plays an important part in what experts call “flattening the curve.” By limiting contact with one another — primarily by staying at least six feet away from others — we can slow the spread of disease. By slowing the spread of COVID-19, we can support the health care system and keep our hospitals from becoming overcrowded. When the health care system is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, more people with otherwise treatable cases will die and more people with unrelated health emergencies will die. We’ve already seen this play out in Italy and China when hospitals were inundated with COVID-19 cases.
It’s not a new concept either: social distancing drastically lowered the number of deaths in St. Louis during the 1918 influenza pandemic. The city suffered only an eighth of the flu-related deaths that Philadelphia, which didn’t practice social distancing and instead held a parade.
For those concerned about the mental effects of social distancing, there are ways to help keep from feeling too isolated. For example, experts do recommend going outside to exercise (making sure to maintain six feet of distance from others), as exercise can boost your mood. Other tips include making sure to get exposure to daylight, scheduling web conferencing to connect more personally with friends, coworkers, and family, and maintaining a routine. Waking up at a consistent time and continuing activities you enjoy might seem trivial considering all of the disruption currently happening, but it is a great way to help feel less overwhelmed at the prospect of COVID-19 and social distancing.
Finally, we must remember, even if social distancing is working as intended, the number of confirmed cases will continue rising for awhile for two reasons: 1) the number of confirmed cases will go up as testing increases and we get a better sense of how widely the virus was able to circulate before social distancing began, and 2) because of the virus’s long incubation period before symptoms (up to 14 days) and the long onset between first symptoms and serious illness (a week or more), the cases we see now will also reflect the actions taken a month ago. That means it may be a month before we know how effective our actions now have been.
That means, it’s critically important to not panic when numbers rise, but rather continue social distancing and other practices that protect public health.
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