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Social distancing: Specific advice on practicing it (and, yes, it can be hard)

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders practicing social distancing during Sunday's Democratic debate.

The New Yorker published a helpful article this week with tips on “How to Practice Social Distancing.”

As the article makes clear, there are a lot of things that people are either overlooking or misunderstanding about social distancing.

For example, if you’re a parent who is still taking your children to a neighborhood playground, you need to read the article. And if you’re anyone who is having people you don’t live with, including friends and family members, drop by for a meal or a visit, you also need to read the article.

“In practice, social distancing mostly means avoiding close contact with people who do not live with you, and also public spaces, where surfaces may be contaminated,” writes New Yorker staff writer Isaac Chotiner. “But, no matter how often we have been given such advice it can be hard to totally change our habits, and the specific advice about how to behave can be confusing and overwhelming.”

For the article, Chotiner interviewed Dr. Asaf Bitton, a primary-care physician, public-health researcher and director of the Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Bitton has released (and been updating) a list of best social-distancing practices, which Chotiner asked him to expand on.

Bitton stressed in the New Yorker interview that when it comes to social distancing, “there is an incredible need for speed. We need to do it now and yesterday and not next week.”

“Social distancing isn’t some external concept that applies only to work and school,” he said. “Social distancing is really extreme. It is a concept that disconnects us physically from each other. It profoundly reorients our daily life habits. And it is very hard.”

Yet Bitton also emphasized that social distancing is about physical separation only.

“It is not — and, in fact, it won’t work if it means — an actual disconnection socially from each other, which would have tremendous, tremendous effects pretty much on everybody, but especially kids and the elderly and other vulnerable populations,” he explained.

Here are a some of the strategies from Bitton’s own list:

No kid playdates, parties, sleepovers, or families/friends visiting each other’s houses and apartments.

This sounds extreme because it is. We are trying to create distance between family units and between individuals. It may be particularly uncomfortable for families with small children, kids with differential abilities or challenges, and for kids who simply love to play with their friends. But even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent. The symptoms of coronavirus take four to five days to manifest themselves. Someone who comes over looking well can transmit the virus. Sharing food is particularly risky — I definitely do not recommend that people do so outside of their family.

“The key is don’t interact with people outside of your home unit — whoever you are already in close contact with,” Bitton told Chotiner.

Take care of yourself and your family, but maintain social distance.

Exercise, take walks/runs outside, and stay connected through phone, video, and other social media. But when you go outside, do your best to maintain at least six feet between you and non-family members. If you have kids, try not to use public facilities like playground structures, as coronavirus can live on plastic and metal for two to three days, and these structures aren’t getting regularly cleaned.

Going outside will be important during these strange times, and the weather is improving. Go outside every day if you are able, but stay physically away from people outside your family or roommates. If you have kids, try playing a family soccer game instead of having your kids play with other kids, since sports often mean direct physical contact with others. And though we may wish to visit elders in our community in person, I would not visit nursing homes or other areas where large numbers of the elderly reside, as they are at highest risk for complications and mortality from coronavirus.

Are there any special steps — like showering — that you should take when you reenter your home after being outdoors? Chotiner asked Bitton.

“If you take a walk in an open, airy park environment or down a not-too-crowded street, I don’t think you need to rip off your clothes and jump in the shower,” Bitton said. “If you had contact with anybody within your personal radius of space, or anyone bumped into you, or you were in a crowded environment like a grocery store or a pharmacy, and you had to touch grocery carts and credit-card pads, you should immediately wash your hands for thirty seconds.”

Bitton added that it might not be a bad idea to take a shower after returning from outside. “Can I point to an evidence guideline that supports that? No,” he said. “But let’s say you are going out for your morning walk. I don’t see how it could hurt to shower after, and perhaps it can help.”

Reduce the frequency of going to stores, restaurants, and coffee shops for the time being.

Of course trips to the grocery store will be necessary, but try to limit them and go at times when they are less busy. Consider asking grocery stores to queue people at the door in order to limit the number of people inside a store at any one time. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly before and after your trip. And leave the medical masks and gloves for the medical professionals — we need them to care for those who are sick. Maintain distance from others while shopping — and remember that hoarding supplies negatively impacts others so buy what you need and leave some for everyone else. Take-out meals and food are riskier than making food at home given the links between the people who prepare food, transport the food, and you. It is hard to know how much that risk is, but it is certainly higher than making it at home. But you can and should continue to support your local small businesses (especially restaurants and other retailers) during this difficult time by buying gift certificates online that you can use later.

“I think social distancing resonates as a concept with families and middle-aged and older adults,” Bitton added in his interview with Chotiner. “I worry it is not resonating enough, or that there is an understandable pushback among younger adults, or people whose lives have been upended if they work in the gig economy, or who don’t necessarily relate to the whole social-distancing thing.”

“This is a real opportunity to be a hero by doing almost nothing,” he stressed.

FYI: You can read Bitton’s full list of social-distancing tips here. You can read Chotiner’s interview with him at the New Yorker’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 03/20/2020 - 09:05 am.

    Very helpful, thank you. Earlier this week a women said in a Zoom meeting that the term should have been “physical distancing” because we don’t want to socially isolate ourselves, and we do want physical distance between us.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/20/2020 - 11:59 am.

    What i find incredible is that all of the US “top” leaders in the fight against coronavirus crowd together every day on what appears to be a tiny stage the size of a public restroom and all use the same microphone over and over.

    Not so much “social distancing” there.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 03/20/2020 - 04:15 pm.

    I’ve read that the virus, once expelled by a cough or sneeze, will remain in the air for a period of time (30 minutes? 3 hours?). If true, then how effective is maintaining six-foot intervals in a grocery or other line? Isn’t everyone nevertheless passing thru a miasma of suspended virus introduced by all who preceded them in line during that period?

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 03/21/2020 - 11:34 am.

      Social distancing to prevent infection

      Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, which publishes CIDRAP News, said that the results [of recent studies of COVID-19] challenge the World Health Organization’s assertion that COVID-19 can be contained.

      The findings confirm that COVID-19 is spread simply through breathing, even without coughing, he said. They also challenge the idea that contact with contaminated surfaces is a primary means of spread, Osterholm said.

      “Don’t forget about hand washing, but at the same time we’ve got to get people to understand that if you don’t want to get infected, you can’t be in crowds,” he said. “Social distancing is the most effective tool we have right now.”

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