Explainer: Why social distancing works in combating coronavirus

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Social distancing is a tool public health officials recommend to slow the spread of a disease that is being passed from person to person

As the coronavirus spreads into more and more communities, public health officials are placing responsibility on individuals to help slow the pandemic. Social distancing is the way to do it. 

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is a tool public health officials recommend to slow the spread of a disease that is being passed from person to person. Simply put, it means that people stay far enough away from each other so that the coronavirus – or any pathogen – cannot spread from one person to another.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes social distancing as staying away from mass gatherings and keeping a distance of 6 feet – about one body length – away from other people. 

The math behind social distancing

There’s math behind the idea that cancelling plans, working from home and limiting interaction with others will eventually, ideally, help end the pandemic.

One graphic, created by University of California’s Assistant Professor Robert AJ Signer and art director Gary Warshaw, shows how it works.

Signer explained to Canadian Global Television Network that the calculations were based on initial research from officials around the world.

“There is a universal logic to this,” he said, noting that the exact numbers may vary from country to country, especially as research is done.

The infographic shows how one person who is asymptomatic for five days and doesn’t practice social distancing can spread the virus to 2.5 people.

“Initial studies have suggested that one person infected with coronavirus can transmit the virus to approximately 2.5 people,” he explained.

Signer added that initial research also shows those who tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, were asymptomatic for an average of five days.

“The next assumption we made is that after five days, a person will begin experiencing symptoms, will quarantine and no longer infect others,” he said.

If one person transmits the infection to an average of 2.5 people, and those 2.5 people each transmit to another 2.5 people and so on, within 30 days, 406 people would be infected.

The graphic then shows what would happen if people limited their social interaction by 50% — an infected person would only transmit the virus to 1.25 people. In 30 days, 15 people would be infected.

Then, it goes on to do the same calculations, assuming the infected individual limited social interaction by 75%.

That’s when the “transmission chain” would ideally end, Signer explained.

“A person can’t actually infect 0.625 people. They are either going to infect zero people, one person or more than one person,” he said. 

“Because there is a plausibility that some people will infect zero people, that’s when the transmission chain ends.”

Why is social distancing so crucial?

At the moment, it’s the only tool available to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Experts estimate that a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away. For now, there are no drugs available that can slow down a coronavirus infection.

Without a way to make people better once they fall sick or make them less contiguous, the only effective tactic is making sure hospital-level care is available to those who need it. 

The way to do that is to slow or stop the spread of the virus and decrease the number of cases at any one time.