How Social Distancing Gives Public Resources Room to Breathe

Scott Aronson

Social distancing is an important part of containing the coronavirus and slowing the spread.

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Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) recommended avoiding mass gatherings of 50 people or more, followed by the White House recommending gatherings of no more than 10 people. The announcements seemed to officially usher in our “new normal:” social distancing, in the time of the coronavirus a.k.a. COVID-19.

But that word had already begun popping up before the U.S. President stepped behind that podium. Last Wednesday, the NBA suspended the season and other sports organizations followed suit; Broadway shut down its shows; and universities across the nation cancelled in-person classes and told dorm-residing students to pack up and go home, all in social distancing efforts. Within days, every American was expected to practice social distancing, though many did not.

It can be difficult to grasp the severity of a situation, especially when the culprit — a virus — is invisible to the naked eye. But social distancing really is one of the best tools we have to fight COVID-19 — chiefly because it gives public resources room to breathe.

Why Social Distancing is an Important Part of Containment

A common rebuttal from individuals out and about this past weekend was, "I'm not worried about getting sick!" Unfortunately, that seems to be a common theme. Some people who perceive themselves outside of the danger zone — younger than 60 without underlying chronic health concerns — seem determined to continue on with their normal lives and interactions. In one viral video, a 21-year-old woman parties in the streets and proclaims herself safe, despite a “compromised immune system,” because she takes supplements.

But avoiding close contact with others isn't just about one person's concern — or lack thereof — for contracting the virus. As a Washington Post simulator shows, social distancing is about slowing the spread of a virus on a massive scale. The simulation demonstrates, using the fictional “stimulitus” virus, how limiting the public’s interaction with each other impacts the infection curve.

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Experts agree that social distancing, regardless of your age or healthfulness, and self-isolation, if you become sick with a cold or influenza, are the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

Why Slowing the Spread Now is So Critical

Another common recourse you might hear from friends or neighbors is, “We’re all going to get it eventually anyway, so why bother with social distancing?” As our points below demonstrate, positively influencing the curve can mean life or death during a pandemic.

  1. It prevents the type of patient surges that place incredible pressure on hospital resources. Thanks to advanced catastrophic surge planning, many hospitals are prepared for a massive influx of patients during a natural disaster or other mass casualty event. But COVID-19 presents a more unique challenge. A surge of patients infected with a highly contagious virus stretches staff and supplies much more than seriously injured patients. Staff require large quantities of specialized personal protective equipment (PPE), and the CDC recommends that patients be placed far apart and that infected patients be isolated from those who are not infected.

    In Italy, where cases have climbed into the tens of thousands, hospitals are overloaded, doctors and nurses are working around the clock, and other hospital services like elective surgeries are having to be cancelled. These types of conditions can lead to devastating consequences, which is why it's so important to prevent them by containing the virus any way we can.

  2. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 will inevitably slow resulting fatalities and ultimately the virus' progression. As the Washington Post simulation demonstrates, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread when people limit contact with others. And if people are infected but don't know because they're asymptomatic, they can recover without risking the health of others. Otherwise, an asymptomatic person could unknowingly go about their daily lives, putting others at risk who may be more susceptible to the virus.

    Though experts aren't sure if recovered individuals build up an immunity that prevents them from contracting the virus again, slowing the spread can have lasting effects even after a temporary isolation period ends.

  3. Slowing the spread of the virus gives science a chance to catch up. While trials for drugs to treat COVID-19 patients are already starting, experts estimate that a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 could take a year or more to develop and even longer to become widely available. Right now, doctors can only treat the symptoms, not the virus itself. The lack of a specific treatment, vaccine or cure, makes it even more important to prevent peaks in infections.

For many, social distancing can be scary, and it’s unclear when life will “return to normal.” But in the meantime, you can feel assured that what you are doing is actively help us fight COVID-19 and keep people safe and healthy.

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