Coronavirus: CDC advises 'social distancing' as COVID-19 spreads, but what does it mean for communities?

Social distancing measures include postponing or canceling mass gatherings like sporting events, concerts, or religious gatherings. It could also mean closing schools or encouraging telework

                            Coronavirus: CDC advises 'social distancing' as COVID-19 spreads, but what does it mean for communities?
(AP Photo)

Mass gathering events -- sports, music festivals and conferences -- are taking a backseat as the US and the world are faced with threats from an invisible yet dangerous enemy: coronavirus.

Miami's Ultra music festival is not happening anymore. So is Facebook's annual F8 conference. Other conferences and business meetings have been called off.  Sports events are feeling a pinch too. As authorities are canceling major sporting events, the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to be held in July, is still undecided.

And all of these cancelations can be attributed to a measure strongly advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): social distancing.

At least 158 Americans have been infected and 11 have died, as of March 5, 2020. 

But what is social distancing?

Ever since the US began witnessing an uptick of COVID-19 cases, the CDC has been stressing on social distancing -- which include postponing or canceling mass gatherings like sporting events, concerts, or religious gatherings -- to limit the spread of the disease.

"Social distancing does two things. First, by reducing your exposure to other people, it can reduce your risk of disease. Second, it can help to slow down an outbreak in a population," Dr. Brian Labus, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

Besides canceling of events, it could also mean closing schools or encouraging telework.

How effective is social distancing?

According to Dr. Labus, social distancing could slow down an outbreak, giving health authorities a better chance to treat everyone without overwhelming the medical system.

People are contracting the virus despite not traveling to affected countries, suggesting community spread. And experts believe the spread varies across communities. As a result, different communities might need different plans. 

"What is appropriate for one community seeing local transmission won’t necessarily be appropriate for a community where no local transmission has occurred. People, communities, local and state governments should begin thinking about what this might look like for them and local action that might work best in their community to blunt the impact of this virus," says Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s national immunization and respiratory diseases center.

People sit a recommended distance apart from each other during the presentation of the new FIAT 500 electric in Milan, Italy, Wednesday. Countries are taking drastic and increasingly visible measures to curb the new coronavirus that first emerged in China and was spreading quickly through Europe, the Mideast, and the Americas. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

The benefits and costs of social distancing vary. "Somethings that seem beneficial could strain responses elsewhere," Dr. Eli Fenichel from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies tells MEAWW.

Further, there is not much evidence to support social distancing. But experts say it has benefits: it reduces social interactions, limiting the virus' chances of spreading in a community. However, these measures are often accompanied by negative societal costs, especially when applied to a large setting: closure of schools or telecommuting. For instance, it could affect children who depend on school meals, says a JAMA study. And many single parents could lose work.

"Larger social distance to measures such as closing schools are very nuanced decision and there are lots of other factors that must play into that decision," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells MEAWW.

He, however, adds that these measures could work at the individual levels. "That is why we advise people who have health problems and the elderly to possibly avoid crowds in public transportation," he explains.


Social distancing could have a bearing on the economy, disrupting supply chains and affecting the retail and services sectors. But that extent of damage can vary.  The goal is to keep people well-informed.  But "heavy-handed measures will have a more direct cost," explains Dr. Fenichel.

Incentivizing social distancing measures could help. He suggests that protecting workers from losing their job or other reprisals, when they are sick, even with mild symptoms could go a long way. "Again, I think to get the incentives for infected people, no matter how mild their case, to stay home is important. I also think calm accurate information that helps people sort out what is best for them," he adds.

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.