If you or a date bailed on dinner plans in the past week, you’re not alone: More and more people are putting their social lives on pause as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continues its spread around the world. And whether or not your friend was being plain old flaky (it happens!), canceling plans might help save lives.
Limiting public engagements counts as social distancing, a broad term public health officials and other experts use that refers to a mitigation tactic in the face of a widespread epidemic or pandemic, especially in scenarios where containment isn’t an option. “Mitigation starts with the idea that we will probably not drive transmission to zero,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New Yorker. “So then we start thinking about what we can do to prepare our hospitals and communities to reduce transmission.”
As Vox notes, social distancing can refer to everything from the postponement, cancellation, or the outright banning of mass gatherings, (think parades, or music festivals like Coachella). But there is no formalized mandate for what social distancing looks like, which can create a lot of confusion in how it’s practiced. Here’s what you need to know about the tactic, how you can keep yourself healthy and safe in the coming months, and why you must take part however you can.
WHAT IS SOCIAL DISTANCING?
On a practical level, social distancing refers to keeping yourself physically apart from other people in an effort to limit the spread of a virus. The Cleveland Clinic recommends you maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and another person.
As Dr. Darien Sutton-Ramsey, an emergency medicine physician in New York, tells MTV News, the novel coronavirus “is a droplet vector virus, [which means that] any droplet from the human body can contain this virus. That includes coughing and sneezing.” And even if you are a carrier for the virus, keeping yourself at a distance from someone else greatly decreases the likelihood that it jumps from your body to theirs. (You can also pick up the virus from a surface hours after someone has touched it, which is why experts urge people to wash their hands thoroughly and properly disinfect everything from your phone to your kitchen and bathroom.)
And being sick sucks, no matter how mild your symptoms. But when the health care system gets overloaded with sick people, resources can become scarce — for those with moderate to severe cases, and potentially for people with other illnesses, too.
“It's been found that 80 percent of people who get this infection recover without major assistance from a medical provider, but it's that 20 percent of people who will get the infection around the same time, in a short period of time,” that we need to worry about, Sutton-Ramsey says. “And that will stress our health care system to the point where it pushes it [to] capacity. At that point we won't be able to treat common diseases or infections that people are normally treated for. And when that happens, society breaks down because health care is kind of the crux of it.”
But sometimes you’re going to come in contact with other people, especially if you live with roommates or partners. That’s understandable: Being proactive doesn’t necessarily mean you need to shut yourself away from the outside world forever.
“What we're really trying to stress to people is that you need to avoid any social gathering [of] more than 10 to 20 people,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “Anything that's not imperative for you to carry on your life, you need to physically distance yourself from it. That includes going to the movie theater, going to a crowded gym or group workout class, and visiting a museum with a large group.”
Some states and organizations are already forcing their residents’ hands: Washington Governor Jay Inslee prohibited groups of 250 or more people from meeting in three counties, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo temporarily banned gatherings of 500 people or more. Plenty of sports organizations have canceled their seasons, and major music tours and festivals have been postponed or called off entirely.
DOES THAT MEAN I CAN’T HAVE FUN ANYMORE?
Think of it this way: If your idea of “fun” involves going out with friends, try thinking of alternate activities. And if they can be done in your own home, all the better.
“There’s no absolute indication not to go to bars and restaurants, but in practicing good public health, which is kind of a responsibility for everybody in the country, really think about how we can decrease those close contacts,” Albert Ko, the chair of the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Atlantic.
Instead of going out to dinner, it’s far more responsible, as writer Amanda Mull pointed out, to order takeout from a local restaurant. Tip generously if and when you do that; delivery people and other service workers are often at the front lines of pandemics like this one, and may be worried about diminished hours or a loss of pay entirely, especially if they get sick themselves.
You can also call a friend and catch up, or binge-watch that new show you’ve been meaning to get to. Some libraries are closed, but if you can, support an indie bookstore and pick up a new read. We’re all going to be a bit off the grid for a few months, and it’s better to lean into it together.
“As a millennial myself, I realize the importance of travel,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “But to be quite honest, it is frustrating when people don't realize what we're up against. What I try to tell people who are joking about travel and leisure and participating in social events is that even if you get this virus, you may not have a problem,” he added. “But when you’re actively participating in social events and not actively socially distancing yourself, you are potentiating the virus to infect vulnerable people and when they’re affected that's, that's when shit hits the fan.”
HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM A QUARANTINE?
To understand this, it’s easiest to look at it from a matter of severity.
The most code-red response is isolation. As Vox explains, experts are trying to isolate people who have been infected by the coronavirus and provide necessary care to those who need it. But even that has its strains, as hospitals around the country are quickly becoming overloaded.
If you suspect you are sick but aren’t at a point where you think you need medical intervention, experts strongly suggest you stay home for now. “If you can treat your symptoms from the comfort of your couch, we encourage that. Because to be quite honest, there are limited to no tests available right now because of poor legislative planning,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “We're only able to test patients who are high risk.”
And while he adds that “there's really no specific medication at this moment that can help decrease the amount of time that you have symptoms, and cure you” if you contract COVID-19, you can manage your discomfort the same way you might alleviate the pains of a flu or a cold. Think: Plenty of sleep, fluids, and time away from other people, so you don’t risk transmitting the virus to them.
Less severe, but just as important, is quarantine, which asks that people who may have come in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus stay in their homes for up to 14 days. As FiveThirtyEight notes, quarantines don’t always work, and legally-mandated ones can even backfire if they’re improperly carried out. But if you feel sick and can stay home to recover, you absolutely should!
“When I say to quarantine or self-isolate, I'm speaking to patients who have active symptoms,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “That includes a fever, a cough, shortness of breath, or any cold or flu-like symptoms.” Even if you can’t tell the difference between the flu and the coronavirus, or if someone in your life doubts that you have contracted COVID-19, he says it’s still safest to “do your best to isolate yourself from others until you are asymptomatic.”
IF I’M SOCIALLY DISTANCING, SHOULD I JUST STAY HOME FOREVER?
Not necessarily — because doing so can cause mental and emotional stress, which can be unhealthy in its own right if left untreated. (It might seem counterintuitive, but now’s a great time to catch up with a mental health practitioner, if you have or can afford one. Plenty of therapists offer Skype or Facetime sessions, and Talkspace has even set up a free online group for people struggling with social isolation right now.)
Plus, it’s practically impossible for most people to do. Staying home 24/7 “is a luxury that a lot of people our age don’t have,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “What we try to endorse is that social distancing doesn't mean you lock yourself in your apartment.” Instead, it’s about trying to avoid large gatherings and reprioritizing some of your old habits.
Instead of hitting the gym, go for a run or a walk if you are able. Other experts also suggest going to grocery stores and running other errands at odd hours if you can, to limit the number of people you come into contact with as much as possible.
WHAT WILL SOCIAL DISTANCING LOOK LIKE IN MY OWN LIFE?
That depends on a few things, but most critically is whether you or someone you live with could be vulnerable to infection. That includes older people, and people with chronic diseases and other immunocompromizations.
“You have to check in on those in need,” Sutton-Ramsey says. He suggests that people who are otherwise healthy and aren’t presenting symptoms reach out to those in their community. If you live in an apartment building and don’t know your neighbors, try asking your superintendent if anyone might need help with buying groceries or running other errands.
If you are one of the millions of young people with chronic illnesses or are otherwise vulnerable yourself, Sutton-Ramsey urges you to “be as careful as you possibly can. Maintain a safe level of precaution when you're walking about the city and doing the things that you have to, but also be cognizant of those who are around you.” If you feel comfortable doing so, he also suggests letting friends know that you might need help.
Social distancing is also why plenty of companies have encouraged employees who can to work from home, thus reducing the likelihood of contagion or transmission on commutes or in the office. But not everyone is able to do that — and restaurant employees and other service workers are already feeling the strain of the social recession caused by the spread of the coronavirus. The answer isn’t for them to find new jobs, especially at such a stressful time. Instead, those of us with the luxury to stay home can do our part in keeping the world around us as safe as possible.
While some government officials urged people to rethink their use of public transportation, that’s a tough ask for many people. “If you are using public transit or you're doing something you simply can't avoid because you need to feed yourself and survive, you are not at fault,” Sutton-Ramsey says. “The only people that should be on the subway are the people who need it for work because they [do not] have any other options for working from home.”
HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO LAST?
Experts don’t yet know — nor do they know if the coronavirus will go away in summer months, the Washington Post reports. And given that COVID-19 is spreading in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s not clear how weather affects transmission and infection.
“While we may expect modest declines in the contagiousness of SARS-CoV-2 in warmer, wetter weather, and perhaps with the closing of schools in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, it is not reasonable to expect these declines alone to slow transmission enough to make a big dent,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch wrote in a recent blog.
It’s better, Sutton-Ramsey says, to think of this as the new normal for the foreseeable future, and to get used to it quickly, so that we can better cope with the feelings it brings up.
“What people need to not miss is that socially isolating or distancing yourself can cause significant loneliness,” he says. “We know that we're in the midst of a social recession where people are not going to be able to communicate with others and it's going to definitely affect their mental and overall emotional and physical health. And so we have to be cognizant that that is also at risk.”
To that end, take the precautions that feel right for your ability and health status, and don’t forget to factor in the needs of the vulnerable people around you. Ask your friends to honor those boundaries, and reach out to them if and when you feel lonely. The healthier and more cautious you keep yourself, the more you contribute to the health of everyone.
You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not everyone has the option to stay at home, but if you can, you should! Social distancing is the new normal, and we’re here to help.