COVID-19: Health officials recommend 'physical distancing,' but what is it?
TORONTO -- In the wake of the World Health Organization classifying the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, health officials and politicians are suggesting “physical distancing” as a means for limiting virus transmission.
During a news conference on March 12, British Columbia Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry suggested British Columbians take measures to give everyone their space. B.C. and Ontario are two of the provinces hardest hit by the virus.
“We must all, at this time, step up our social distancing,” Henry said during the news conference. “This is not forever. This is for the coming weeks. The coming weeks when we know we have to do everything we can to prevent transmission of infection in our communities.”
The idea was referred to at first as “social distancing” before health officials decided the term was more confusing than illuminating, and that using the word “physical” better emphasized the meaning of the concept.
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WHAT IS PHYSICAL DISTANCING?
Essentially, physical distancing refers to staying away from group gatherings and large public spaces where a virus can be easily spread, and keeping a distance of around two metres between yourself and another person on the sidewalk if you venture outside.
Health officials have asked people to remain within their homes at all times except for essential trips outside, such as visiting the grocery store. Measures can include working from home.
“I’m asking everybody to take those measures, to increase your distance between people, to look at gatherings where you can stay apart from others,” Henry said. “Right now, we need to keep our hands to ourselves, keep our germs to ourselves.”
The World Health Organization has also instructed the use of physical distancing to prevent spread of the virus, calling it “absolutely essential” in a virtual press conference on March 20.
DOES PHYSICAL DISTANCING WORK?
According to the National Institutes of Health, physical distancing measures during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in Mexico -- most notably a mandatory nationwide school closure for 18 days -- resulted in as high as a 37 per cent reduced rate of transmission among children.
Additionally, the city of St. Louis enacted several physical distancing measures in 1918 following the First World War to prevent the spread of influenza, including the closures of schools, churches and theatres. While more than 1,700 people from St. Louis died from the flu that year, comparatively in Philadelphia, 16,000 people died after officials decided to hold a citywide parade instead of implementing similar measures.
WHAT ABOUT LARGE EVENTS?
Preventing the spread of COVID-19 has already led to the cancellation of several concerts and sporting events around the world.
In many provinces, gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, and bars and restaurants have been ordered to close except for takeout and delivery. Schools, public libraries, theatres, cinemas and concert venues are other public gathering spaces affected by many closure orders across the country. Areas for religious gathering such as churches have also been shuttered in many places.
Many wedding venues have been affected, and numerous weddings are being postponed, even among couples who had already planned for a small reception.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford announced on March 23 that all non-essential businesses would be required to shut down as a measure against the virus.
Those feeling lonely during self-isolation and longing for a larger gathering can turn to technology — tools such as video-calling apps can be used to provide a way to participate in larger social gatherings such as drinks with friends or dance parties.
DO I STILL NEED TO STAY AWAY FROM PEOPLE AND GATHERINGS IF I FEEL HEALTHY?
Countries that have been able to test wider swathes of the population have shown that a high percentage of those who tested positive for the virus had no idea they had contracted the virus.
In Iceland, half of those who tested positive had no symptoms of COVID-19, Thorolfur Gudnason, the nation’s chief epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News.