A new phrase has entered our vernacular in the past few weeks – “social distancing” — brought to us by a rolling global pandemic and now ordered by health care experts in what is becoming a desperate attempt to keep the coronavirus known as COVID-19 from spreading more rapidly every day. As the United States experiences widespread school closures and governmental orders to close public places that attract crowds, you’re likely to hear the term “social distancing” several times a day.

Simply put, social distancing is putting more space between and among us, reducing contact to slow the spread of this new virus – which seems to spread before people even feel sick. Think of a line of wooden matches. If you lit a fire on one end of the line, the fire would spread down the line. But move a few middle matches – social distance – and the fire can be stopped before it reaches the rest of the line.

Especially now, putting that space between you and your family and places where this infection could spread is important. That’s why the other directive public health officials are giving us is “stay home.”

This coronavirus is new (thus the term “novel” that health experts add to the name). It is incredibly infectious, and its mortality rate is many times higher than the seasonal flu. There is no vaccine, and no herd immunity to what the world is facing right now. That’s why the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, and national, state and local governments have put into place strict orders as we attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

“Social distancing is a complicated way of saying stay away from people, and the microbial residue that people might have accidentally left behind,” said Social Epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison Malia Jones, who studies how people’s behaviors contribute to outbreaks of infectious disease.

“Since the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread from person to person through physically close social contacts, the best approach to prevention we have right now is to keep people from being in close contact as much as possible,” she explained in an article on Healthline . “I’ve been calling social distancing ‘cocooning’ to promote the idea that you should be at home in a safe harbor with your family.”

It’s critical that everyone practices social distancing, not just those who are sick, Due to delays in testing and the ability for someone to have and spread COVID-19, even if they appear healthy, it’s currently impossible to know who has it.

“Social distancing is a responsibility that individuals take on to make sure they’re not the vector of disease and to break the chain of transmission,” said Clinical Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora, Colorado Mary Chu, PhD.

Steps to Practicing Social Distancing:

  • Stay home except for acquiring the essentials. Essentials are things like food, medicine, feed for your animals, gasoline, basic financial needs. It is not clothes shopping, going to the gym, or riding public transportation. It’s not hanging out at the coffee shop (although restaurants and bars are allowed to organize carry-out our take-out and supporting our local small businesses is extremely important.) Think of home as your cocoon.
  • Avoid crowds and gatherings. Heed the warnings; the state issued a mandatory order directing people not to gather in groups larger than 10.
  • Stay 3 to 6 feet away from people outside of your own family “The recommendation is to be 3 to 6 feet away from other people, and to preferably be outside, where transmission risk is lower,” said Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Public Health Thomas Jaenisch, PhD. “While 3 to 6 feet is distant enough if it’s for a minute or so, if you’re in a closed room and have a meeting for an hour, that’s a different story.”
  • Wash your hands and don’t share items with people outside your cocoon. Avoid getting anything [such as the virus] sneezed onto a table, door handle, or onto your hands, and then ultimately into your mouth and nose. Wash your hands often for 20 seconds (sing Happy Birthday TWICE in your head) as soon as you get home from getting those essential items, and especially before you eat.
  • Don’t schedule play dates for your kids.  “Keep your children home from school, and don’t let them mix with other kids outside your cocoon,” said Jones. “School closures are especially important because even though children aren’t at particularly high risk for getting sick from COVID-19, they can still be carriers [and spread illness].”
  • Don’t visit your older parents or grandparents. Assisting older family members is essential, but keep your distance and don’t do social visits for at least the next few weeks or longer. Keeping the elderly healthy, who are among the most vulnerable, is important because they can end up with serious symptoms explains Jaenisch. Call them daily or more often, use Skype and FaceTime to connect with them. Now might be a good time to teach grandparents to text.
  • Don’t have casual friends over and don’t date.  Only socialize in person with your small, inner circle and be over-cautious right now. “Keep it to smaller circles that always interact with each other — and even better, only each other,” said Jaenisch. “And don’t date in person. You can still message people during this time, but wait 2 to 6 weeks to meet new people in person.”
  • Practice social distancing even if symptom-free. You might feel fine, but this virus can spread before you know you have it. You might have a slight cough and the sniffles, but a person you come into contact with might have a compromised immune system and end up hospitalized. Act always as if you already have the virus and choose not to spread it to others.

Staying in touch to avoid loneliness

Staying home with your family, and working from home, doesn’t have to be without social engagement. In fact, staying connected in other ways is going to be important to prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness that can lead to depression.

“We’re social beings by nature. We thrive on social connectedness,” said the Director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center and associate professor of community and behavioral health at the Colorado School of Public Health Jenn Lieferman, PhD. “As much as social distancing is very important right now for the health and welfare of our country, it’s also very important that people still figure out ways to be connected to reduce the likelihood of social isolation and loneliness.”

Lieferman recommends staying connected with phone calls, video chats, and social media. Others suggest reaching out to old friends and family members you don’t see or talk with often to check on them. Doing so not only helps them feel connected – it can help you feel better connected as well.

Sharing music, reading aloud, playing board games with your inner circle, getting up a (small) game of charades – all are ways to alleviate reliance on watching hour after hour of television. Start a journal — not for posterity, but a place to capture your fears and your hopes and to write down at least one positive thought each day.

Taking a walk with your pet if in town; a solitary hike if you live in a rural area, can get you into the fresh air. Setting up a scheduled time to go out on your back deck while your neighbor goes out on theirs – lets you see each other and talk (at a distance) over the fence.

What can we learn about ourselves as a society through this? This isn’t World War II. We aren’t being asked to sacrifice what our parents and grandparents did then. But we are being asked to sacrifice; to stay home with our families — to be the matches that are moved out of the way — to stop this pandemic.  The time to show what we are made of is — NOW.

We’ll get through this. #Chaffeestrong.