You may think that social distancing is accomplished by staying home from work and nixing visits with friends. While these are two crucial elements of social distancing, there’s actually a lot more to it.
For instance, when out for a walk, run, or hike, social distancing means physically distancing yourself from anyone around you by six feet.
It may not seem like a big deal. You feel fine. Your spouse, partner, or roommate feels fine. Plus, how is COVID-19 really going to jump that barrier across the walking path? While these thoughts are completely natural and understandable, they are, unfortunately, incorrect.
Feeling fine doesn’t relegate you into the uninfected category. Firstly, you could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, meaning you have the virus, can transmit it to others and yet don’t develop symptoms. Secondly, COVID-19 symptoms may take up to 14 days — that’s two full weeks — to manifest. Unless you’ve been exclusively quarantined by yourself in your home for 14 days, you could be a transmittable carrier. On top of that, “being within 6 feet of someone who is sick can get you or your personal space contaminated with COVID-19” as this is the magic distance that “these tiny, infected droplets can travel.”
The Ripple Effect of Improper Social Distancing
Remember that trip to the grocery store last week? The one where you weren’t distancing yourself six feet from other people in the store, the one where you exchanged cash with the teller, the one where you may have forgotten to disinfect the cart handle, sanitize your hands before and after, or even wash your hands when you got home?
That one trip provided multiple avenues and ample opportunity to contract COVID-19.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you did.
A week later and you’re out for a run or a walk at your local park or in your neighborhood. You don’t remember to veer off the path or sidewalk to provide those extra few feet for a proper 6-foot social distancing space. It’s at this point that you pass an older couple out for a stroll. Your breathing is labored and unbeknownst to you, spittle flies from your lips to the faces of the couple where it enters their bodies via their eyes, nose, and mouth.
Another week later, that couple has developed symptoms and — due to their age — have to be transported from their home by an ambulance — where they are cared for by a pair of paramedics, a few fire department staff, and possibly a police officer — to the intensive care unit at the hospital — where they will be treated by a staff of health care professionals including nurses, doctors, and tech Support.
Possibly, one or both of the paramedics caught the virus within the confined space of the ambulance while transporting? How about the police officer or the firefighters who were first on the scene? Maybe a nurse or doctor who watches over not only this specific couple but dozens of other COVID-19 positive patients contract the virus. How about the tech Support for the hospital or the janitorial staff? What about the admission staff at the hospital?
Think about all the healthcare professionals that may come into contact with that one elderly couple, all the potential opportunities for them to contract COVID-19, and then imagine how many of those people have family members or roommates who will then contract the virus when they return home.
It may start with one or two people, but the ripple effect of the virus, especially when you factor in emergency services, is monumental.
That one decision to cancel events with friends, stay home from work, or even offer an extra two feet of space between yourself and others in the outside world creates a massive difference that can lead to two outcomes: to ignore social distancing leads to suffering, death, the use of already limited medical supplies, and the loss of much-needed health care workers, but to follow social distancing (to the “T”) leads to saved lives.
How Healthcare Workers are at Greater Risk
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that our healthcare workers have a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 then others. Yet, what the data is telling us, is that our healthcare workers are also becoming critically ill and are requiring more intensive care no matter their age or health status.
The initial statistical data that came out of Wuhan, China found that “15 percent of the roughly 1,700 Covid-19 cases for medical personnel as of mid-February were critical or severe … [and] … five had died.” In European countries — especially those hit hardest by the virus — “health care workers account for a significant share of their Covid-19 cases,” such as in Spain where “medical staff accounted for 14 percent of the country’s nearly 40,000 reported cases” and in Italy “[one] in 10 coronavirus cases was a health care worker.”
Yet, due to the lack of protective gear for medical staff, American health care workers may actually be hit the hardest.
For instance, “more than 100 workers in Boston’s three biggest hospitals have already tested positive for Covid-19” and in Pittsfield, Massachusets, “160 employees of Berkshire Medical Center have been quarantined at home after exposure to patients who tested positive.” This doesn’t account for other “central COVID-19 hubs” like nursing and retirement homes — such as the initial outbreak in a Kirkland, Washington nursing home where “four dozen staffers tested positive.” On top of the nursing home staffers who are now quarantined with COVID-19, “42 of 100 members of the fire department and a few police officers were quarantined” some of who responded to the calls from that same nursing home.
Think it can’t get worse?
A current report found that New York paramedics are struggling to answer emergency calls in the city. Why? An incredible “20 percent of the 4,500 ambulance workers — EMTs, paramedics, and supervisors — are out sick.” Out of this 20 percent, “two members of ambulance crews were on mechanical ventilators.”
As mentioned, it’s not just about contracting the illness, but also the severity of the illness.
Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, noted that “it’s not that [healthcare workers] are getting infected at higher rates; instead, they’re getting sicker than one might expect on the basis of their age.”
The big problem? While researchers have theories, they don’t necessarily know why healthcare workers are getting sicker.
What we do know is that there is a lack of protective gear for our healthcare workers, which drastically increases their risk of being exposed on a constant basis to the virus.
To put it in perspective, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University in New York City — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak — described going to work at the hospital as “showing up to war with a knife.”
How Social Distancing Protects our Healthcare Workers
While healthcare workers are raging daily battles against the virus and putting themselves in harms way, ill-equipped to protect themselves, the public is being asked to simply stay at home and keep six feet away from others.
A very simple request.
Unfortunately, it’s been found that the social distancing, self-isolation, and sheltering-in-place that has succeeded to quell the cases in China and control the cases Italy, is not being as stringently adhered to in the states.
At this point, most of us hopefully understand that “social distancing is crucial for preventing the spread of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19 (coronavirus).” In keeping to ourselves, we minimize the chance of spreading the illness to our loved ones, our community, and subsequently, our healthcare workers.
Yet, social distancing and sheltering-in-place offer a variety of other safety benefits.
For one, it seeks to flatten the curve — referring to “reducing the number of people who are sick at one time.” This helps to reduce COVID-19 hospital admittance surges, which decreases the risk of overwhelmed hospitals. Flattening the curve also allows hospitals to build up a better stockpile of medical supplies — including that essential protective gear and those vital ventilators — and allows for our health care staff to tend to both their patient’s medical requirements and their personal care and hygiene to avoid contracting the illness themselves.
The truth is, if we prioritized the safety of our healthcare workers, then we’re inevitably prioritizing our own health and safety.
Guidelines for Proper Social Distancing
Social distancing is meant to alter human behavior to “help stop the spread of infections,” oftentimes including “curtailing social contact, work and schooling among seemingly healthy individuals, with a view to delaying transmission and reducing the size of an outbreak.”
This is what social distancing is about and here’s how to do it properly.
1. Work From Home if Possible
For those of us not in the “essential” group of businesses, we’ve probably already achieved this first crucial step!
By either choosing to work from home or being mandated to work from home, we eliminate a huge aspect of social distancing. This isn’t just limiting the interaction between ourselves and our coworkers. It’s also limiting our exposure in a variety of other ways including reducing visits to restaurants (think about those lunch meetings), avoiding those after-work happy hours, and even drastically reducing the number of cars pulling into gas stations.
2. Cancel Social Gatherings
If you’re really looking to make a difference, this doesn’t just mean limiting your social groups to less than 10 people. It means canceling all social gatherings — even if it’s just with one person or even family members — and limit your social interaction to the people you live with or virtual gatherings.
This is probably the most difficult part of social distancing, yet it’s one of the most important to follow to help flatten the curve and protect our healthcare workers.
Of course, there are other options to make it bearable!
Set up regular video chats with one or a group of your family and friends. There is a slew of free and pay-for platforms to make this possible such as Google Hangout, Houseparty, Zoom, Skype, and Facetime. You can even turn these into events such as Netflix watching parties, book clubs, game nights, or even virtual happy hour.
3. Avoid Restaurants, Food Courts, and Bars
While food from restaurants doesn’t seem to be a risk factor at this point — due to the fact that “most infections from new coronavirus appear to start with the respiratory system, not the digestive tract” — coming in contact with food service workers is a huge risk factor.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people should use drive-through, pickup, or delivery options instead” of attending a restaurant in person.
Currently, most cities are under a strict shelter-at-home mandate, which has forced all non-essential businesses to close their doors.
This means that we are forced to follow the CDC guidelines.
With that said, even with delivery or pickup, there are a few tips and tricks to keeping your home and body uncontaminated. For instance, remove the food from the “containers, throw those out, and then wash your hands thoroughly before eating.” Keep a 6-foot distance between yourself and the delivery person by either paying online so they can leave the food at the door or leave the appropriate amount of cash in an envelope at the door for them.
4. Outdoor Time Requires Six Feet
It’s impossible to ask everyone to stay inside all day, every day.
In fact, when it comes to mental health concerns, complete sheltering without outdoor time may cause more trouble and lost lives. This is why all shelter-in-place mandates so far have allowed for walks, runs, and hikes.
With that said, this only works if we all give ourselves 6 feet from other people who are out and about.
If someone is walking down the sidewalk in front of you, choose to walk in the street to go around them. Running on a walkway? Take those extra few feet into the grass, even if you don’t think it’s necessary. When you show up at your favorite park and it seems a bit crowded, make the right decision and avoid the park.
5. Practice Good Hygiene at the Grocery Store
Going to the grocery store is an essential trip.
With that said, there are ways to keep yourself safe during and after these trips.
Make sure to wipe “down the handles on the shopping cart or basket” with sanitized wipes or hand sanitizer. Do your best to give yourself six feet distance between yourself and other shoppers. If someone is coming down an aisle, simply choose to visit that one later. Be extremely aware of touching your face with your hands and make sure to use hand sanitizer once you leave the store.
At home, make sure to unpack your food first and foremost and then “wash your hands again.”
If you’re really going all-in on the social distancing or live in a state where there is a shelter-in-place mandate, you can always give a grocery delivery service a try. Some grocery stores offer in-house delivery or you can go with a company such as Instacart.
Make sure to follow the same guidelines for unpacking the groceries and washing your hands. It’s also very important to make sure the delivery person drops the groceries at the door.
6. Institute 14-Day Quarantine for Sick Household Members
Right now, our researchers have very little data to go off of, therefore, like any good scientist, they create what is called a model to help deduce what may happen. In current models of the COVID-19 outbreak, a 100 percent halt of the transmission was achieved when a sick or possibly infected person self-quarantined inside their home for at least 14 days.
If you believe or know that you have been exposed to COVID-19, then it’s incredibly important that you not only quarantine inside your home, but also within your home from other family members for at least 14 days.
This may be incredibly difficult, but if you prepare for the day when you may be quarantined, then you should be able to make it through. Preparations include stocking up on safe medications, — such as Tylenol — filling your freezer with broth and the pantry with canned and boxed foods, and making sure you have a thermometer and lots of tissues on hand.
If you live with other people, it’s also a good idea to have a few facemasks and gloves onhand, so they can safely interact and care for you without contracting the virus themselves.
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