Story at a glance

  • Health officials in areas with heavy concentrations of novel coronavirus cases are recommending social distancing.
  • The public health tactic is often used to stop or help slow down a highly contagious disease such as COVID-19.
  • While social distancing hasn’t been recommended for the general population yet, some are suggesting it is the logical next step in addressing the coronavirus outbreak.

Social distancing sounds like when you see multiple unread messages on your phone and decide not to respond to any of them. But in the context of a novel coronavirus outbreak that officials say is likely to get worse before it gets better, it’s a vital tactic to prevent the disease from spreading.  

Dr. Barry C. Fox, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the public health approach involves avoiding people and places where it’s possible to come in contact with germs by droplets, direct contact or surfaces that are potentially contaminated with the virus. In the case of COVID–19, which health officials have warned is more infectious than SARS, the goal isn’t just to keep yourself healthy, but those around you as well. 

“If a person does not go to an event where they may be around many people, they reduce their individual risk, but also reduce the cumulative risk to society,” Dr. Fox said, referencing herd immunity, or resistance to a contagious disease resulting from others who are immune to the disease. 

In recent days, universities and schools have cancelled classes, and music festivals including SXSW and Coachella are considering postponing until after the outbreak dies down. Studies show social distancing is effective with other contagious viruses, including the common flu, and some believe it’s the only way to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading.


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“It comes down to determining whether or not social distancing is worth it — a more conservative individual or one in a higher health-risk category may say yes, while others may decide to wait to make that decision until the local spread risk is higher in their area,” Dr. Fox said. “At this point in time, people will have to make the decision for themselves — that is until the public health department makes the decision for them like some school districts and universities have already done on the west coast.”

Even if authorities haven’t cancelled large public gatherings, officials are advising those above 65 with pre-existing health conditions and in higher-risk areas to stay away. And while those who are younger or generally healthier might not be as worried about contracting COVID–19, it’s important to remember you can still pass it on to someone else. 

"It's our responsibility to protect the vulnerable,"  Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told NBC. "When I say 'protect,' I mean right now. Not wait until things get worse. Say no large crowds, no long trips. And above all, don't get on a cruise ship."

Online, many people who are immunocompromised also raised awareness of the risk they face when others choose to go out in public while sick.

So whether or not you decide to respond to your text messages, be aware of large crowds. And if you’re looking for a reason to skip that party you said you’d go to, social distancing is as good as any. 


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Published on Mar 10, 2020