COVID-19 FAQs: What is social distancing?

6-foot rule, isolation, quarantine: different ways to protect yourself & others

Social distancing: Woman works from home sitting on exercise ball at her desk faces a computer screen and large windows.

When a new disease spreads where there’s no immunity to it, infectious disease experts recommend social distancing.

“Currently a vaccine or drug is not available for COVID-19,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Community-based interventions such as school dismissals, event cancellations, social distancing, and creating employee plans to work remotely can help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Limiting close face-to-face contact is the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC says.

You can practice social distancing along with other everyday prevention measures: Wear a face mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, refrain from shaking other people’s hands, avoid touching your face, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home when you’re sick. Here are additional steps you can take.

What is social distancing?

According to the CDC, social distancing is keeping a safe space between yourself and other people who are not from your household. For example:

  • Maintaining distance — at least 6 feet — from others in both indoor and outdoor spaces
  • Working or schooling from home whenever possible
  • Staying out of crowded places
  • Avoiding social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people

Public health history lesson: How social distancing beat typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto

What’s the difference between isolation and quarantine?

Consider isolation and quarantine as part of a spectrum of restricted movement. If physical or social distancing is on one end of the spectrum, quarantine is in the middle, and isolation is on the other end. All three help to protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease, the CDC says. 

  • Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. In the case of COVID-19, this should last at least 14 days from exposure and can include other members of your household.
  • Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. With COVID-19, this should last at least 10 days from your first symptoms or positive test result, separate from others in your household.
Why are events being canceled?

Public health officials at the CDC and World Health Organization recommend these measures to reduce the number of infections and slow the rate of the pandemic.

Such social distancing reduces the rush of patients at clinics and hospitals — known as “flattening the curve.” It also helps scientists buy time to develop treatments and vaccines.

How can we stay connected during social distancing?

Short-term, isolation can be the healthier choice, to prevent the spread of infection. But, “over time, human beings need to be interconnected,” said Sanford Health licensed psychologist Jon Ulven, Ph.D.

He suggests that people plan to maintain contact with others via phone calls, social media, video chats or any other digital platforms.

“Discuss the plan for staying in touch,” he said.

For example, workplaces might offer working from home, holding virtual meetings and instant messaging. Schools have adopted virtual learning while their campuses are closed. Places of worship and community organizations may broadcast video or audio of their services and events.

Meanwhile, the CDC recommends keeping tabs on vulnerable people such as older adults. Find ways to help, such as checking on them to make sure they’re getting meals and other essentials.

This story was originally published on March 14, 2020. It was last updated Sept. 17, 2020, with face mask recommendations and more definitions of isolation and quarantine.

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Posted In Coronavirus, Frequently Asked Questions, Healthy Living

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