How “Social Distancing” Can Help Slow The Spread Of Coronavirus

“The smaller the group, the smaller the chance of transmission.”

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Getty Images

More and more public gatherings are being cancelled as the novel coronavirus (which was declared a pandemic) continues to spread; confirmed cases surpassed 121,000 globally and jumped sharply in the U.S. as of Wednesday. Colleges and universities are calling off in-person classes, Democratic presidential primary candidates are canceling rallies, the entire country of Italy is on lockdown, and Coachella, the annual massive arts and music festival, has been postponed.

As people in the U.S. decide for themselves whether to self-quarantine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends if you feel sick, organizational leaders and individuals are deciding how exactly to implement “social distancing” measures.  “Social distancing,” a public health term, is designed to avoid community spread of infectious disease, and it can apply to anyone — even those who don’t fall into the most at-risk group of adults over 65 who have certain pre-existing conditions.

“Preventing community spread means trying to disrupt the chain of transmission by avoiding large crowds of people and helping to reduce the risk of being exposed,” Saskia Popescu, infection prevention epidemiologist with HonorHealth, told NowThis. “The smaller the group, the smaller the chance of transmission. Also, it means being cognizant if someone is sick and putting that space between you and them.” 

A viral graphic — shared with the hashtag #Flattenthecurve — has helped illustrate the effects of social distancing. The curves show the number of cases over an increased period of time — and the drastic role that slowing the rate of infection among a large group can play in the total number of cases. (That rate of infection subsequently affects how burdened a community, including its schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and other resources, will be at any given time during on outbreak.)

The chart is based on a study from the CDC about pandemic influenza, appeared in The Economist (and been adapted by others including consultant Drew Harris). In essence, it shows that social distancing measures like simply staying home can help prevent an overburdening of the healthcare system, as hospitals in the U.S. are reportedly already running out of crucial supplies, like respirator masks. The cancellation of large public gatherings ensures people are less likely to transmit the infectious disease in a large crowd.

While sharing the graphic, biologist Carl Bergstrom at University of Washington wrote last week: “Looking at the picture, you can see that even if you don't reduce total cases, slowing down the rate of an epidemic can be critical.”

Popescu echoed those sentiments, explaining: “In a smaller group of people, you can easily move away from a sick person, but in a larger crowd, that becomes challenging. While this may not be an option for everyone, it’s important to try and utilize this prevention strategy, but also others like hand hygiene, not touching your face, etc.”

In the U.S., several states have declared states of emergency, and domestic testing for the virus reportedly faltered in the key early days of the outbreak. While pharmaceutical treatments like vaccines remain underdeveloped, non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing have become a priority.

As of Wednesday morning, more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S. across at least 37 states, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. At least 29 people in the U.S. have died.