By Melanie Mouzoon, M.D.
The COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak has added new terminology to our everyday vocabulary, including the phrase social distancing. In recent weeks, this term has been repeated in CDC guidelines, news reports, and other communications to describe the practice of limiting close contact between people for the sake of slowing down the spread of a contagious illness.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing began with recommendation of keeping 6 feet between yourself and others, while maintaining proper hygiene, such as covering your mouth while sneezing and coughing and frequently washing your hands.
This guideline has progressed with the rapidly evolving spread of coronavirus, as well as the realization that it can be spread through human and surface contact. Now the term social distancing has taken on a new meaning, with live sports events, concerts, and other large crowd gatherings canceled. Even churches have canceled services and many companies are allowing employees to work from home. Several cities in the United States, including the Houston area, have ordered restaurants and bars to either shut down or close their dining rooms, with only takeout or delivery available. The current CDC guideline is to avoid any social situations involving more than 10 people.
Social distancing of this magnitude is unprecedented in the United States, and while it may seem like such drastic measures are unnecessary, the fact remains that this may be the only way to effectively stop the spread of COVID-19.
One reason for this is the inability to easily detect carriers of the virus. Many people show no symptoms while still testing positive for coronavirus, while others can be infected for a couple of weeks without showing symptoms. Someone who feels perfectly healthy could attend a large event or go into the office and unknowingly infect others. This is particularly problematic if they pass the illness to those who are at high risk of developing serious symptoms, such as the elderly or people with weakened immune systems.
Flattening the Curve
Another term that arose when the outbreak began and that’s associated with social distancing is flattening the curve. The curve refers to the number of COVID-19 cases occurring at one time. When the curve is a high peak, it means a large number of cases are present and few preventative measures in place. This puts a great deal of stress on healthcare resources, making it difficult to effectively test and care for sick individuals.
When preventative measures such as social distancing are enacted, the curve “flattens,” slowing down spread of the virus to help ensure that enough healthcare resources are available to test and care for each sick individual.
Social distancing exercises during previous epidemics and pandemics throughout the world, including during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in the United States, have proven that flattening the curve through preventative measures in the early stages of the outbreak significantly decreases the spread of the disease, as well as deaths associated with the disease, and can even eradicate the disease completely. We all have the power to help end the COVID-19 pandemic by abiding by CDC social distancing guidelines.
Dr. Melanie Mouzoon is the managing physician for Immunization Practices at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. She’s also a board-certified Pediatric hospitalist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Woman’s Center and is a fellow of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.