'Social distancing' could help slow the spread of coronavirus

If you have to meet someone consider a fist or elbow bump instead of handshakes to slow the spread of illness.
/ Source: TODAY

Everyone is talking about social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Public health experts are urging people to avoid crowds and to stay home as much as possible as introverts joke that they've perfected this.

But what is social distancing? Does it mean that you should be completely homebound and act like a hermit indefinitely?

"Generally social distancing means doing things to keep away from exposure from other people," Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, told TODAY. "That means staying away from large crowds. That means trying to stay home — especially if you're sick."

Why practice social distancing?

“Americans should begin social distancing (no handshaking, eliminate non-essential travel and meetings). The reason is not so much to get practice or to reduce personal risk, as to reduce the intensity of the COVID-19 epidemic and spare the health care system,” Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of social and natural science at Yale, shared in a Tweet in early March.

Avoiding crowds or handshakes can help contain many illnesses (not just coronavirus) because of how viruses flourish.

“A lot of our respiratory viruses, including the new coronavirus, can be primarily spread by droplets, which means that when you cough or sneeze these droplets come out of your respiratory tract,” Dr. Rosemary Olivero, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “They can either be inhaled by another person or land on your body.”

To avoid infection, experts encourage people to stay about six feet away from others.

"Studies have shown that viruses like this transmit through droplets, droplets that are created with a cough or a sneeze," Watson said. "That is why we recommend staying six feet away from each other."

When the droplets land on the hands viruses really start migrating.

“Viruses can live on your hands and when one person has a virus on his hands and you shake that hand and then you take your hand and you pinch your nose or your rub your eyes or you go to get that piece of food that's in your teeth (then you get the virus),” Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health at Rutgers University School of Nursing in New Jersey, told TODAY.

Fist or elbow bumping might be safer, but most people would understand skipping a handshake for a few weeks.

What you can and can't do with social distancing

For many, the concept of social distancing is a little confusing. That's because a lot of it is based on an individual's health and location. While the experts want to reduce the spread of the virus, they know that asking people to stay home 24/7 sounds impossible (and insane) to many.

"It's a hard judgment call," Watson said.

She said people should avoid gatherings of 50 or more people. Larger group settings make it easier for the virus to spread. Many states and cities are banning large gatherings to lessen opportunities for the virus to thrive.

Does that mean going to a small local restaurant or bar is safe? It depends.

"If you are in a city or a location where there is not a lot of active transmission I would lean more to going out in small amounts," Watson said.

But if there are a lot of active infections in the area she says people should stay home. Intimate gatherings of friends and family who aren't sick at someone's home might be OK, but again it depends.

"If no one has risk factors — they don't have underlying conditions or aren't pregnant — if you all feel comfortable getting together, that is an appropriate thing to do," Watson said. "This is going to be a marathon not a sprint. People have to stay sane. We have to do things that make us feel OK and we need that exposure to others."

While going to the gym might be safe if people completely wipe down equipment or go at slow times, taking walks, enjoying parks or being in the yard might be a good alternative. Though people probably want to skip crowded areas or group classes.

"Sunshine and fresh air are also important for us. If you can get outside and not have exposure to other people — especially if you are not sick — you should," Watson said.

When it comes to groceries, it's best if people can order them online. If that isn't possible, young, healthy people can visit the store. Watson advises they go on off hours and try to stay away from others in the store. For extra protection, people should wipe off cart handles and wash their hands immediately after leaving.

Watson added that if anyone feels under the weather they should skip small gatherings, restaurants, bars, parks and even the grocery store.

"If you are sick, it is better to stay home," Watson.

Take precaution before traveling

Avoiding travel could be another way to practice social distance, but this might be tough for many. People with trips already planned might balk at canceling a vacation and losing money. While sick people should definitely stay home, healthy people should carefully weigh their plans.

One thing that could be a deal breaker is location. People should avoid areas with high rates of infection, even if they think they’re young and healthy enough to avoid serious complications.

“Even if you don't think you're a super-high risk of getting severely ill from coronavirus, what if there's a possibility of being quarantined?” Olivero said.

This week, President Donald Trump announced that travel between the United States and Europe would be halted for 30 days as an effort to slow coronavirus. Both airlines and cruise companies are updating their policies making it easier for people to cancel.

How is social distancing different from quarantine and isolation?

Quarantine is for people who aren’t sick but have been exposed to the disease. People with the illness are in isolation, where they are removed from contact with other people and treated with special medical precautions. Experts recommend that sick people should voluntarily stay way from others even if their illness seems mild.

"If you're not feeling well," Olivero said, "stay home."

While the coronavirus pandemic sounds overwhelming and frightening, experts remain hopeful.

"It is going to get tough over the next weeks or months. We can band together and get through it," Watson said. "We have weathered past infectious disease emergencies before."