How does social distancing help stop a virus?

The coronavirus has created widespread uncertainty and confusion. It feels like every day we are getting new instructions and changes to our daily life. One of the biggest changes has been the emphasis on social distancing. 

Social distancing includes:

  • Avoiding crowds
  • Restricting physical contact
  • Limiting travel to only what's necessary
  • Keeping a 6 foot minimum distance from others in public spaces
  • Staying away from vulnerable populations (elderly, sick, pregnant women, etc.)
  • Self-isolation if you are sick

But what impact will all of this make on the spread of the virus?

Looking at the data on a global scale can be overwhelming and hard to comprehend. So to answer that question, let's just look at a hypothetical neighborhood that has had an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. (Click here to learn about how viruses spread in new communities)

Let's say that in the population of 2,000 people, the virus has infected 364 in two weeks because there was no social distancing in place.

That is about 18% of the people in your neighborhood that are now infectious carriers, and the virus is still hungry to spread. Not a pretty picture at all.


Coronavirus Graphics_exponential spread-05


But with some social distancing measures in place right from the start, such as the cancellation of large community events, maybe one of the original 3 infected people could have halted the spread to their circle of influence.


Coronavirus Graphics_exponential spread-10


If there had been even more restrictions from the start, such as offices sending their employees to work from home and public gathering spaces closing for a short time, again, the spread of infection is limited and stops many people from spreading it further.


Coronavirus Graphics_exponential spread-08


If our social distancing practices were even more drastic, such as only allowing trips out of our homes for what is necessary, our neighborhood could show that very few were infected and the virus looks like no big deal at all. 


Coronavirus Graphics_exponential spread-09


Of course, this is a highly simplified illustration of how social distancing works. This neighborhood example is just a way to illustrate how the massive impact you can have on reducing spread of a virus.


One thing that is being debated everywhere we turn is: how do we justify interrupting our lives and our economy so drastically now, when people get sick all the time. Why is this new virus such a big deal?

It's because viral pandemics are sneaky disasters. Everything seems fine for a long time, and then overnight it is not fine. In your neighborhood of 2,000 from the first spread of infection, it takes more than two weeks to get to more than 100 cases, but then in the next few days, the case count is more than triple that. Hospital systems don't have the resources to handle 3x as many patients as they did a few days earlier, and people die in huge numbers because of it. 

Now imagine this happening on a scale that is a billion times bigger. Your neighborhood of 2,000 is one of a billion just like it. Social distancing, for everyone in the world, is the only defense we have right now to slow down the spread and starve the virus of new people to infect.

The more we obey social distancing measures, the shorter amount of time we will have to do it. If you are able, please stay home. We like to think of ourselves as exceptions to the rule, but in the case of a viral pandemic, no one is the exception.

Be smart, and be safe.


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