Doctors explain ‘social distancing’ and why it works

South Carolina health officials say six people have tested presumptive positive for coronavirus.
South Carolina health officials say six people have tested presumptive positive for coronavirus.(LMC)
Published: Mar. 17, 2020 at 8:36 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Most Americans are familiar with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) basic hygiene instructions that aim to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other germs: wash your hands for 20 seconds, cough into your elbow, and avoid touching your face.

But the CDC’s latest recommendation, called “social distancing,” may be harder to understand.

“We’re just trying to separate people a little more than usual,” Our Lady of The Lake infectious disease Dr. Catherine O’neal said. “Do the things you have to do. Get them done. Don’t go in groups.”

On average, each person infected with the new Coronavirus has infected two other people. Social distancing aims to break up clusters of people so that germs are harder to spread and the health care system is not eventually overwhelmed.

“The day before you start to have that scratchy throat or first fever, you actually start to shed virus that day when you feel pretty well” O’neal said. “So the only way to know that you’re not spreading the virus is to distance yourself from other people.”

But distancing is different from isolating or quarantining. Social distancing does not involve locking yourself in a room or avoiding people altogether.

Instead, doctors are asking healthy people to cut unnecessary trips outside the house. When you have to be around others, they recommend staying three to six feet away from the closest person.

“If I choose to stay home and not experience life in general, that’s going to give me the blues,” O’Neal said. “Going to the store, going to the park, going to work - if you’re doing those things and around people, stay 3-6 feet apart from them. But don’t isolate yourself. We’re in this for the long haul and you’re going to have to speak to somebody eventually."

By canceling school, postponing elections, and banning gatherings of more than 250, Louisiana is already forcing some social distancing.

Experts say there are other practical ways you can eliminate unnecessary trips to places with tight quarters: exercise outside instead of at a gym, have food delivered rather than eating at a restaurant, and, if possible, work from home.

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