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Op-Ed: The evidence says social distancing to prevent COVID-19 works

In the first post we looked at face masks; in the second we looked at disinfection. This time we’re looking at social distancing, the potential contamination that can arose from the shared air and surface environment from droplet and fomite spread.

Based on World Health Organization (WHO) advice, social distancing (or physical distancing’) is the most important thing you can do to avoid coronavirus. This is followed by regular hand washing – using hot water and soap or an alcohol based hand sanitizer.

Aerial view of chairs arranged in order to maintain social distancing at a parking lot in Soweto for...

Aerial view of chairs arranged in order to maintain social distancing at a parking lot in Soweto for food distribution

READ MORE: Coronavirus, surface survival and disinfection

Social distancing means observing a set distance apart and avoiding physical contact like hugs and handshakes. As to why social distancing is important and the reason for the 2 meters (or 6 feet) guidance, this is based on medical evidence.

Research shows that a typical cough travels 68 centimeters, a distance shorter than the 200 centimeters or 2 meters recommended by the WHO for social distancing. With a sneeze, a typical sneeze will travel further, up to 100 centimeters. but this is still a shorter distance that than the recommended 2 meters.

READ MORE: COVID19 — Put away that face mask, save it for healthcare workers

This means that at a distance of 2 meters this is generally is outside of the range of droplet projection. The data an be reviewed in a paper published in the Public Library of Science, titled “Exhaled Air Dispersion during Coughing with and without Wearing a Surgical or N95 Mask.”

This is further backed up by epidemiological research, where models show that social distancing is effective at decreasing the the basic reproduction number, of the virus. The reproduction number is the means by which viral infectivity is assessed – based on the average number of people who become infected individuals from another infected individual within a population.
As an example, if 25 percent of the population practice social distancing and cut down on the number of close contact by 50 percent, this can, in ideal conditions, decrease the viral reproduction number by around 20 percent – according to a scientist called Becker in the book ‘Modeling to Inform Infectious Disease Control‘.

When a sick person coughs or talks, virus particles can spray from their mouth or nose into another person’s face. You’re most likely to inhale these droplets through your mouth or nose, but they can also enter through your eyes. You can also become infected by touching something that has the virus on it — like a table or doorknob — and then touching your eyes.

To support social distancing, many people will recall the quarantined cruise ship off the Port of Yokohama in Japan, during February 2020. The first detailed inquiry into the cruise ship Diamond Princess has indicated that the primary routes for the coronavirus infection spreading were surfaces and close contact, but not air over distance or air conditioning systems. In other words, emphasizing social distancing and surface disinfection.

An interesting fact about coronavirus transmission is that one area of research has shown that the virus does not spread easily in tears. To show this, researchers took samples from tears, and also the back of the nose and throat from coronavirus patients. While the patients’ tears were clear of virus, their noses and throats were teeming with COVID-19. Despite this reassuring news, it’s important for people to understand that guarding your eyes — as well as your hands and mouth — can slow the spread of respiratory viruses like the coronavirus.

The video below expands on some of the items raised in this article:

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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