What Social Distancing Truly Means—And Why We All Must Do It

You've heard the term being bandied about on the news. Why is it so important you pay attention to health officials—and start doing it yourself? We've got the answers.

by Mary Shomon Patient Advocate

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that coronavirus disease 2019—COVID-19—is now a pandemic. And according to its latest guidelines, avoiding places where people gather in large groups is imperative to help stop the spread of the disease.

So What Exactly Is Social Distancing?

Social distancing is the official term for such self-isolating behavior. It means that—for a time, anyway—we all refrain from attending concerts, church services, sporting events, and assemblies, and from going to restaurants or using public transportation—basically shunning all large congregating groups and always remaining at least six feet away from the next person, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An increasing number of U.S. universities, public schools, and businesses are complying with these protective measures, telling students and office workers to learn and work from home through virtual classrooms and telecommuting.

Caesar Djavaherian, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and cofounder and medical director at Carbon Health in Berkeley, CA, believes it’s crucial to embrace social distancing as an obligation to our friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers—even if you’re not personally at high risk for a serious infection.

The less contact we have with others, he says, the less chance there is to spread the virus to those who are most vulnerable, including the elderly, those with chronic illness (like diabetes, lung and heart disease), and anyone who has a compromised or suppressed immune system.

“The well-being of your neighbors depends on your actions,” Dr. Djavaherian says. “It’s like getting vaccinated. If enough people are vaccinated, we get herd immunity. Social distancing is our best alternative to vaccination. It reduces your chance of being a carrier and passing it along to people at higher risk.”

Think of it as a way to give back to your community, and really the world at large. And, in case you need more convincing, we’ve got four more reasons why social distancing is everyone’s responsibility:

1. The Coronavirus Is Super Easy to Catch.

COVID-19 is highly transmissible from person-to-person through inhaling respiratory droplets from someone’s cough or sneeze, or touching shared surfaces that have been contaminated and then transferring them to your eyes, nose, or mouth.

In fact, experts estimate that each person with COVID-19 will spread the infection to 2.2 other people, according to an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine co-written by Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Contrast that rate to the seasonal flu, where each infected person typically infects another 1.2 people.

Let's do the math: For every five people with COVID-19, 11 additional people will likely become infected, who, in turn, infect others. For every five people with seasonal flu, an additional six people are infected.

Since the first U.S. cases were announced in January 2020, infection rates have rapidly increased across the country, with nearly half-a-dozen “cluster” zones reporting dozens—and sometimes hundreds—of cases in and around Seattle, Boston, the New York City suburbs, Santa Clara County, CA, and more.

More stats to keep in mind:

  • To date, there are 35,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. of COVID-19 with 457 deaths—with numbers likely to rise.

  • Some experts estimate that the actual extent of infections is much greater than is currently being reported, due to lack of widespread testing, which continues to be an issue across the country.

  • Brian Monahan, M.D., the attending physician of the U.S. Congress, told Capitol Hill staffers on March 11, 2020, that he expects as many as 70 to 150 million people in the U.S.—around a third of the population—to eventually contract COVID-19.

Part of the reason those numbers may be so high? People with COVID-19 appear to be contagious for longer than they are with other common infections.

Research shows that people infected with this virus are contagious within two days of contracting it—usually before they have any symptoms, according to a new German study. However, a report from China that followed patients hospitalized with the virus found that some people were still “shedding” the virus—i.e., still potentially infecting others—up to three weeks after initial infection, and in one case up to 37 days later.

There is still so much scientists are leaning about the virus—but this much is clear: You may be a carrier of the disease and not yet know it. It’s possible some may recover from the disease and still be able to transmit it for a period of time. Social distancing keeps the infected away from others before and even after obvious symptoms appear or go away.

2. COVID-19 is More Dangerous Than the Flu—Especially for Vulnerable Groups.

You might hear a lot of people comparing COVID-19 to the flu. It’s true that particularly virulent strains of the flu in the past have been especially deadly—the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920 killed 2.7% of the world’s population—yet during a regular flu season, just 0.1% of people who contract it die. But COVID-19 is not your everyday influenza.

This virus has a mortality of 10 times that, closer to 1% overall, according to Dr. Fauci, who testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 11, 2020. This number may change as experts get a better handle on exactly how many people are actually infected (and keep in mind that rates are sometimes calculated different ways), but for now it’s important to remember that this can be an incredibly dangerous condition for certain people. If skipping some social events for a while can help save lives, then it’s 100% worth the disruption.

3. There Is No Vaccine or Treatment for COVID-19.

At present, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, and as a new virus, no one is immune. There are also no specific medications to treat it. Right now, researchers and drug manufacturers around the world are losing no time in a rush to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Clinical trials and safety testing are already in the works for several different vaccines, but according to Dr. Fauci, “you’re talking about a year to a year-and-a-half” before a COVID-19 vaccine will be available for widespread use. Until then, public health experts are focusing their efforts on prevention to decrease the spread of coronavirus exposure. And yes, social distancing is a big part of it.

4. Many U.S. Hospitals Are Already Strained.

One of the most important goals of social distancing is to help “flatten the curve.” The term refers to those soaring lines on official graphs that document rising infection rates. By limiting our interactions with large groups at this time, we can all help reduce the chance of a huge spike of infections happening all at once—and overwhelming our already burdened healthcare system.

The good news is that the majority of Americans who become infected with COVID-19 will recover without the need for hospitalization. Even so, according to a recent report from The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, as COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S., as many as 1 to 10 million people might need to be hospitalized, with anywhere from 200,000 to 2.9 million people requiring intensive care.

More troubling? The same report says that hospitals in the U.S. are already operating at or near full capacity and that the number of available ventilators—needed for life support for patients with severe COVID-19 infections—is estimated to be no more than 100,000. What’s more, the Society of Critical Care Medicine counts just 103,900 ICU beds in this country, out of an estimated 924,000 beds in all U.S. hospitals. And remember—many of those beds are already taken.

Adding to the challenge is the current and projected shortage of U.S. first-responders—frontline heroes like doctors, nurses, EMTs, and more. By some estimates, healthcare facilities are already short-staffed, experiencing vacancy rates of up to 20%, with special need for public health nurses and epidemiologists.

And as COVID-19 continues to spread, more healthcare workers will become infected and unable to provide patient care for weeks a time. As the number of people needing hospitalization for COVID-19 increases, it’s possible we could reach a point where the healthcare system may be unable to provide care to all who need it. And this is exactly what we need to avoid.

This potential impact on hospitals is perhaps the scariest part of the pandemic, and we know, really hard to hear. But experts believe we can still do a lot to keep our healthcare system functioning—as long as everyone, right now, starts doing whatever they can to prevent the infection from spreading in the first place.

  • Coronavirus Guidelines: World Health Organization. (2020.) “Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for the public.”
  • Coronavirus Contagion Rates: The New England Journal of Medicine. (2020.) “COVID-19: Navigating the Uncharted.”
  • Coronavirus and Congress: The Hill. (2020.) “Top Health Official Fauci Says Coronavirus Outbreak ‘Going to Get Worse.’”
  • Symptoms of Coronavirus: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020.) “Watch for Symptoms.” cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html
  • Coronavirus vs. Flu: MIT Technology Review. (2020.) “These are 6 of the Main Differences Between the Coronavirus and the Flu.”
  • Viral Shedding (1.): Clinical Infectious Diseases. (2015.) “The Dynamic Relationship Between Clinical Symptomatology and Viral Shedding in Naturally Acquired Seasonal and Pandemic Influenza Virus Infections.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4725380/
  • Viral Shedding (2.): The Lancet. (2020.) “Clinical course and risk factors for mortality of adult inpatients with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China: a retrospective cohort study.”
  • U.S. Hospital Capacity: Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. (2020.) “What U.S. Hospitals Should Do Now to Prepare for a COVID-19 Pandemic.”
  • U.S. Hospital Equipment: Hospital Society of Critical Care Medicine. (2018.) “Clinical Care Statistics.”
  • U.S. Hospital Beds: American Hospital Association. (2020.) “Fast Facts on U.S. Hospitals, 2020.”
  • Shortage of U.S. Healthcare Workers: Keck School of Medicine, USC. (2020) “A Closer Look at the Public Health Workforce Shortage.”
Mary Shomon
Meet Our Writer
Mary Shomon

Mary Shomon is a patient advocate and New York Times bestselling author who empowers readers with information on thyroid and autoimmune disease, diabetes, weight loss and hormonal health from an integrative perspective. Mary has been a leading force advocating for more effective, patient-centered hormonal healthcare. Mary also co-stars in PBS’ Healthy Hormones TV series. Mary also serves on HealthCentral’s Health Advocates Advisory Board.