As the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues, one of the measures recommended by health professionals and governments is social distancing – the practice of keeping a safe distance away from other people in order to limit the spread of a pathogen. While pharmaceutical controls such as vaccines and medication are important, prevention is better.
Social distancing is not a perfect disease control measure. As the NSW Department of Health says “Social distancing is an effective measure, but it is recognised that it cannot be practised in all situations and the aim is to generally reduce potential for transmission”.
The federal government, and some state governments, are considering a number of different social distancing strategies. The good news is that while science-based approaches to other important policy areas might be less popular in government, science is being used to inform some of what is being proposed.
A document, on the federal health department website outlines a number of different social distancing measures and how effective they are based on research. The research is mainly based on data from recent flu outbreaks as well as other research projects.
For example, proactive school closures during influenza outbreaks can reduce transmission of influenza by up to 50% and delay the epidemic peak by a week or two as well as reduce the impact of epidemic waves. Reactive school closures are also effective but less so with the research indicating varying results.
Workplace closures can also be effective although the impact on services that could support the reduction of transmission or support for infected people may mitigate some of the benefits of reduced transmission.
Working from home can also help, with research finding:
In a trial conducted in Japan, a workplace policy of being able to remain at home on full pay was shown to reduce the overall risk of infection with the 2009 pandemic influenza by about 20%, and a United States study suggests that teleworking when a family member is affected may reduce the risk of acquisition of severe influenza symptoms among employees by about 30%.
Maintaining expanded personal space from others, avoiding large crowds and limiting physical contact by not shaking hands are all forms of social distancing that will help us combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For many of us, social distancing will prove challenging. Humans are generally social creatures and we need contact. But we also know that social distancing is an important weapon in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.