How does social distancing slow down an outbreak?

Social distancing is a public health practice that slows an outbreak by reducing the opportunity for the transmission of disease. Preventing the spread of an illness involves several stages, but once a virus is already present in a community, the priority shifts to the mitigation stage. This phase specifically focuses on reducing the number of people who will get the disease, and who will in turn pass it on to other people. It’s possible to reduce this number and the speed at which a virus moves through a population by social distancing. This ensures that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed and that the outbreak does not go unchecked.

Regarding the outbreak of COVID-19, the CDC has defined social distancing responsibilities for both individuals and the community at large; the practice involves maintaining six feet of distance from other people while out in public, and avoiding mass gatherings. There are many factors that impact how fast a virus can spread, including the number of contacts between people and the duration of contact. Taking measures to reduce these factors is currently the most important and critical thing we can control during a virus outbreak. It is not possible to modify the biology of a virus, but it is possible to decrease the number and duration of contact with other people.

In this situation, people who are healthy and/or young play a critical role. The elderly and those who have compromised immune systems are most susceptible to getting the virus and experiencing its harshest symptoms. It is possible for anyone to contain and carry the virus, but the healthy and young are more likely to have milder symptoms and may not display any symptoms at all. Social distancing is about protecting the community at large and keeping your distance so you do not infect other people, even if you are not experiencing symptoms yourself. Once a virus is already present, refraining from contact and practicing social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of illness, as it reduces opportunities for transmission.


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