COVID-19 Update

Health
Two women standing apart, using cellphones
Two women standing apart, using cellphones
Two women standing apart, using cellphones

Coronavirus, Social and Physical Distancing and Self-Quarantine

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Now that the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes, are spreading among communities in the United States and other countries, phrases such as “physical distancing,” “self-quarantine” and “flattening the curve” are showing up in the media.

What do they mean, and how might they apply to you, your family and your community?

Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H. , senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins, helps clarify these concepts so you can understand better why they’re being recommended.

What is social distancing?

The practice of social distancing means staying home and away from others as much as possible to help prevent spread of COVID-19. The practice of social distancing encourages the use of things such as online video and phone communication instead of in-person contact.

As communities reopen and people are more often in public, the term “physical distancing” (instead of social distancing) is being used to reinforce the need to stay at least 6 feet from others, as well as wearing face masks.  Historically, social distancing was also used interchangeably to indicate physical distancing which is defined below.  However, social distancing is a strategy distinct from the physical distancing behavior.

COVID-19: When should physical distancing be practiced?

Infectious disease expert Lisa Maragakis explains how physical distancing can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and offers tips to practice it correctly.

What is physical distancing?

Physical distancing is the practice of staying at least 6 feet away from others to avoid catching a disease such as COVID-19.

As noted above, “social distancing” is a term that was used earlier in the pandemic as many people stayed home to help prevent spread of the virus. Now as communities are reopening and people are in public more often, physical distancing is used to stress the importance of maintaining physical space when in public areas.

How can I practice physical distancing?

Wear a face mask or covering when you are not in your home and whenever you are around people who are not members of your household. Maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. Avoid crowded places, particularly indoors, and events that are likely to draw crowds.

Other examples of social and physical distancing to avoid larger crowds or crowded spaces are:

  • Working from home instead of at the office
  • Closing schools or switching to online classes
  • Visiting loved ones by electronic devices instead of in person
  • Cancelling or postponing conferences and large meetings

What is self-quarantine?

People who have been exposed to the new coronavirus and who are at risk for coming down with COVID-19 might practice self-quarantine. Health experts recommend that self-quarantine lasts 14 days. Two weeks provides enough time for them to know whether or not they will become ill and be contagious to other people.

You might be asked to practice self-quarantine if you have recently returned from traveling to a part of the country or the world where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, or if you have knowingly been exposed to an infected person.

Self-quarantine involves:

  • Using standard hygiene and washing hands frequently
  • Not sharing things like towels and utensils
  • Staying at home
  • Not having visitors
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from other people in your household

Once your quarantine period has ended, if you do not have symptoms, follow your doctor’s instructions on how to return to your normal routine.

What is isolation?

For people who are confirmed to have COVID-19, isolation is appropriate. Isolation is a health care term that means keeping people who are infected with a contagious illness away from those who are not infected. Isolation can take place at home or at a hospital or care facility. Special personal protective equipment will be used to care for these patients in health care settings.

What is “flattening the curve?”

Flattening the curve refers to using protective practices to slow the rate of COVID-19 infection so hospitals have room, supplies and doctors for all of the patients who need care.

animated chart showing a flattened curve

A large number of people becoming very sick over the course of a few days could overwhelm a hospital or care facility. Too many people becoming severely ill with COVID-19 at roughly the same time could result in a shortage of hospital beds, equipment or doctors.

On a graph, a sudden surge in patients over a short time could be represented as a tall, narrow curve.

On the other hand, if that same large number of patients arrived at the hospital at a slower rate, for example, over the course of several weeks, the line of the graph would look like a longer, flatter curve.

In this situation, fewer patients would arrive at the hospital each day. There would be a better chance of the hospital being able to keep up with adequate supplies, beds and health care providers to care for them.

An illustration of a doctor and patient wearing masks

Getting Ready – and Staying Safe – for Your Next Appointment

We are ready to safely care for you in our community practices, clinics, surgery centers and hospitals. Learn about our additional steps to keep you safe and how you should prepare for your appointment.

Lessening Coronavirus Impact

It’s important to know what to do if you feel sick. The coronavirus pandemic is making everyone aware of handwashing and protecting others from coughs and sneezes. Along with those essential steps, practices such as social and physical distancing, and self-quarantine and isolation when appropriate can slow the rate of infection in a city, town or community.

The pandemic can seem overwhelming, but in truth, every person can help slow down the spread of COVID-19. By doing your part, you can make a big difference to your health, and that of others around you.

Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Updated July 15, 2020