What Is Social Distancing, Physical Distancing and Self-Quarantine?


In recent weeks – and in some countries, months – phrases like “social distancing,” “physical distancing,” and “self-quarantine” have become a part of our everyday lexicon. We read it in on social sites, hear it on the news and see it in action (hopefully) on infrequent trips to the grocery store. But what do they mean?

What Is Social Distancing and Physical Distancing?

At its core, social distancing and physical distancing means limiting close contact with people and avoiding large crowds and groups. The aim is to keep healthy people away from sick people in an effort to slow down and prevent the spread of a contagious disease, like COVID-19. It can be inconvenient. But it is socially responsible during a pandemic – and it needs to be taken seriously. (Along with proper hand hygiene and cough/sneeze etiquette).

From Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins:

“Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least six feet away from other people lessens your chances of catching COVID-19.”

Another example of social distancing can be observed in the cancelation of sporting and music events around the world. But there are other examples of social and physical distancing recommended by Johns Hopkins that allow you to avoid larger crowds or crowded spaces are:

  • Working from home instead of at the office.
  • Closing schools or switching to online classes.
  • Visiting loved ones via Facetime or other video chat services.
  • Canceling or postponing conferences and large meetings.

So, you can view physical distancing as the actual placement of one person in relation to another person, keeping apart at least 6 feet (2 meters). But social distancing, in slight contrast, is limiting the circumstances by which we might come into close contact with others (e.g., going to school, going to office, attending concerts).

And when going out, wearing a face mask – cloth or otherwise – to help prevent the spread of aerosols and particulates is recommended.

What is Self-Quarantine?

If a person believes they have been exposed to the coronavirus, or who are at-risk for coming own with COVID-9, are recommended to practice self-quarantine. For example, if you have traveled to a part of the country – or world – where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, or if you have knowingly been exposed to an infected person.

Self-quarantining for up to 14 days, as recommended by healthcare professionals, provides an adequate time to know if a person might fall ill and become contagious to others. During this time, you might not feel sick and might not display any symptoms.

Self-quarantine involves:

  • Washing hands frequently as observed in standard hygiene
  • Not sharing household items like towels and utensils
  • Staying at home and not having visitors
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from other people in your household

After your quarantine period has ended, if you do not have symptoms, follow your doctor’s instructions on how to return to your normal routine.

Who Should Self-Quarantine?

An epidemic is a good time to be on high alert. That said, self-quarantining is only necessary if you’re reasonably suspicious that you’re infected with the virus. Public health officials can help you decide what you should do. Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends self-quarantining if you have medium or high risk of coronavirus exposure.

You’re at medium risk of exposure to the new coronavirus if you:

  • Traveled from a country with widespread COVID-19 transmissions (as of March 2020, this includes all countries).
  • Traveled on a cruise ship.
  • Have come into close contact* with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19 and is symptomatic.
  • Live with, are intimate with, or care for someone who has symptomatic COVID-19 and you have consistently followed the recommended precautionary steps to prevent transmission of the virus

* Note: “Close contact” is generally defined as the distance equivalent to within two seats in either direction on an airplane.

You might not feel sick or have symptoms, but maybe you work in the same office as someone who is a confirmed COVID-19 case. Perhaps you’ve attended a work conference or large gathering where someone was later confirmed to be positive for COVID-19. Maybe you traveled in an airplane next to someone who was coughing – a lot. Now you’re concerned. And rightly so.

If you’re healthy, don’t have any symptoms and don’t fall into one of the risk categories above, the CDC suggests you do not need to self-quarantine — but you should continue to practice social distancing and physical distancing, and continue to monitor yourself for signs and symptoms, like fever and cough. If symptoms develop, follow CDC guidelines.

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