- Public health experts and government officials have been using the term "social distancing" when discussing how they're tackling the novel coronavirus.
- The term describes broad measures like cancelling sporting events and closing schools in an attempt to slow the spread of airborne infections, which can help officials track and curb its transmission.
- Individuals can practice their own versions of social distancing, like working from home when possible and trying to keep 6 feet between them and sick people, to boost their chances of keeping themselves, and their communities, safe during an outbreak.
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To outsiders, Sarah Ellis may seem a bit high-strung during flu season: She wipes down grocery cart handles, avoids indoor public spaces with her almost 2-year-old daughter, opts for waves over hugs, and, if her daughter gets invited to a birthday party, she texts all the other guests first to see if anyone is sick.
"We stay home if anyone is," said Ellis, whose daughter has the immune-system-compromising condition short bowel disorder, which means she was born with only a small part of her intestines.
But now, many of the practices Ellis has been doing all along to protect her daughter from germs that, for her, could turn into a serious illness, are becoming more Americans' habits as the novel coronavirus spreads and "social distancing" is promoted as a key way to slow it.
"I love that the whole world is talking about this, along with hand-washing and basic hygiene," she told Insider. "These are the things we beg people to think about when there's not a near pandemic in the news. It's a great time to raise awareness about how to not share germs, which moms of medically complex kids know so few people think about in their daily lives."
Here's more about what social distancing really means, how it works, and how to apply it in your own life to lower your risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
In a public health sense, social distancing typically means cancelling large gatherings like festivals and conferences
"Social distancing" is a public-health strategy used to describe broad measures like school, festival, and public transportation closures in an effort to help slow, track, and eventually curb the spread of airborne diseases like the flu and tuberculosis, according to Santa Clara County's public health department.
"Since a pandemic cannot be stopped once it has started, and because health experts do not know how much warning there will be, once pandemic influenza is found in our area, social distancing measures will be used early on to slow the spread of the disease and provide our community with the valuable time needed to be better prepared," the county's website says.
In the case of coronavirus, the practice should not be the first or only line of defense, since measures like contact tracing and quarantining those who are sick are more effective and cost less if done in a disease transmissions early stages, World Health Organization leaders emphasized at a Wednesday media briefing declaring the virus a pandemic.
But the strategy still worthwhile and promising when looking at how it was implemented in China, Dr. Lipi Roy, clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health's Department of Population Health, told Insider.
"We've seen evidence of the efficacy of social distancing in China, where they have cancelled public gatherings, advised self-quarantining, and closed off heavy-trafficked areas," she said. "Since these measures were implemented, cases have plateaued."
Across the US, many social distancing measures have been implemented too: Saint Patrick's Day parades are off, festivals and conferences have been cancelled, colleges are moving classes online, and companies are urging or requiring employees to work from home.
Exactly what size gathering is large enough to be considered risky and worth calling off seems to up to leaders' discretion, as well as whether the community in question is trying to prevent an outbreak or manage one that's already in motion. San Francisco, for one, has banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, while a county in Washington is capping events at 250.
According to the CDC, "a mass gathering is a planned or spontaneous event with a large number of people in attendance that could strain the planning and response resources of the community hosting the event, such as concerts, festivals, conferences, worship services, and sporting events." It recommends different strategies for before, during, and after outbreaks.
On a personal level, have fewer social interactions, keep a healthy distance from those who seem sick, and don't share objects
Social distancing is most effective as a public health strategy if people think about how they can limit their own social interactions, too.
While, if you're healthy, you don't have to completely quarantine yourself (which can come with its own set of physical and mental consequences), you should "use discretion," Roy said, in the types of events you attend, places you visit, people you see and how close to them you get.
"Unless absolutely necessary, consider canceling, postponing, or rescheduling," various activities, she said, especially if you're sick, elderly, or have a chronic condition like asthma or heart disease.
Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor at University of Tennessee Erlanger and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, suggested people make decisions about their work lives and social calendars by asking three questions: How many people will be there? How close will you be to all of those people? How well ventilated is the space or how much people can move around?
"The more people, the more closely packed, and the more poorly ventilated the space, you can imagine that's a bad situation — it's why the CDC is now discouraging people from going on cruise ships — because there are a ton of people, they're in very close quarters, and they're a totally captive audience," she said, adding that a packed concert or a conference would also fall into those avoid-at-all-costs categories.
On the other hand, she said, going to an uncrowded, open-air restaurant with a friend or two is a lower risk.
Keeping a physical distance from people who are sick or experiencing coronavirus symptoms is an important aspect of social distancing, too. Since coronavirus droplets can travel about 3 to 6 feet if someone coughs or sneezes, that means at least six feet away, Gillespie said, adding that you should also limit the objects you share with people, like desks and phones.
All of these measures add up, Ellis emphasized. "The number 1 thing is realizing we all have a part to play in keeping other healthy," she said. "It's not just about you."
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