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Doctor’s Note: How to do social distancing during coronavirus

Coronavirus is a global crisis, and the situation is changing every day. I do not think I have ever quite experienced anything like it in my career, including when the swine flu pandemic hit in 2009.

Around the world, we are seeing the number of affected people rising rapidly. This has led to a whole host of different measures being implemented to try to get things under control. Some have worked well. Others, not so much.

In many countries, it seems that no matter what we try, the situation is worsening day-by-day.

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So, am I panicking? Not yet. Even though things are serious, and we may feel helpless at times, there is still much we can all do to help mitigate things.

Two of the most important interventions, which you may already have heard of, are social distancing and self-isolation.

Every country has a slightly different policy when it comes to these, however, the general principles are similar.

Some people get the two confused, so here is an explanation, based on current UK practice.

What is social distancing? 

Well, social distancing is the thing we should be doing, and by we, I mean everyone.

Exact advice varies, but it does include things like: Working from home if possible; travelling only when necessary, especially on public transport or for overseas trips; avoiding social venues like cinemas and clubs; avoiding gatherings of large groups of people; restricting visitors; and, if you do go out in public, maintaining a safe distance from others – usually around two metres.

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Since coronavirus is spread mainly through respiratory droplets (especially when people cough or sneeze), maintaining a bit of distance will help to decrease the spread of the virus.

Social distancing aims to reduce the amount of interaction people have while allowing them to carry out their necessary day-to-day activities. It also helps reduce the chances of picking the virus up and then spreading it to others.

These measures are especially important for people at higher risk of severe disease if they get coronavirus. This might include the elderly, especially those over 70, people with significant long-term medical problems like lung disease, heart disease, weak immune system, diabetes, neurological problems, kidney disease; and pregnant women.

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How is self-isolation different? 

Self-isolation is what people with possible coronavirus have to do – if they have symptoms, or if they have been in close contact with someone who might.

It is usually reserved for those likely to be infected, to stop the disease spreading.

Self-isolation involves much more stringent and widened application of distancing practices such as: Not going to work or school; not travelling; not having visitors; not leaving the house and instead asking others to help if you need supplies; not sharing a bed; and not sharing household items like towels and utensils.

While social distancing is usually an ongoing practice over a long period of time, self-isolation is usually for a set period of time.

For example, in the UK, we recommend that people with symptoms self-isolate for a minimum of seven days. Their family members and others they have been in close contact with should self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days to allow for the incubation period and to see if they go on to develop the disease themselves.

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As we learn more about the virus, this advice is likely to change. However, for now, it represents one of the most powerful tools we have in dealing with this global pandemic.

So let’s make sure we all do our part.

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