What is Social Distancing and Why is it Important? 

As cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continue to spread like wildfire across the globe, the term “social distancing” seems to be flooding social media feeds and news stories. So what is social distancing and why is it important?

Social Distancing Stops the Spread of Disease

Some viruses – like the virus that causes COVID-19 – spread easily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social distancing puts space between individuals. If someone is sick and there are no people around, a virus cannot spread. 

“Social distancing means we are doing our best to stay away from people so as to limit the spread of coronavirus,” says UNC family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. “ “It’s really important because if everyone gets coronavirus at once and ends up in the hospital at the same time, our health care system would be overwhelmed.  We need to ‘flatten the curve.’”

How to Practice Social Distancing  

Tactics for social distancing include canceling large social gatherings, such as sports events and concerts, as well as closing schools, bars and restaurants, and having people work from home instead of an office. But it also means limiting any interaction with anyone beyond your immediate family, with whom you live.    

Any time you go out and are around other people, you’re exponentially increasing the contact you have with the world and the possibility of transmitting the virus, Dr. Ruff says. 

“Social distancing means staying within your own home with the people that are within your family and not having even one other family over to your house,” Dr. Ruff says. “Not even one play date or letting your kids play basketball with the neighborhood kids or at the park. Because all of those contacts are exponentially increasing the chance that you are transmitting and spreading this virus.”  

What to Do If You Must Leave Home

While working from home is recommended, some people don’t have that option. And you may have to run out to the grocery store or pharmacy. In these cases, practice vigilant hand hygiene and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. 

For example, as a physician, Dr. Ruff has to go into work, “so I take the stairs so I am not in an elevator,” Dr. Ruff says. “If you do touch something that other people have touched, immediately wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you have that opportunity, especially before you touch your face.”

In addition, many stores, including Dollar General, Whole Foods and Target, have announced that the elderly customers, the most at-risk group, may shop first thing in the morning, before other customers, to try to reduce their exposure to the virus.

Practice Social Distancing Even If You’re Not at Risk

While those at highest risk seem to be those over age 60 and those with chronic health conditions, the best thing everyone can do is adhere to strict social distancing measures as outlined by the CDC and your local government, Dr. Ruff says.  

“Even if you feel like you’re young and healthy and think you’re probably not going to get sick, we all have parents, grandparents and elderly neighbors in our circles and we are doing this for them,” Dr. Ruff says. “Because if you give it to them, they could get really sick. So even if you’re not worried about yourself, there’s somebody in your life who you want to protect.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website, UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.