The Importance of Social Distancing Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

All signs are pointing to a rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus in Boston in the next several weeks, and the time now to start practicing social distancing is more urgent than ever.

On Tuesday, March 10 the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Boston was only nine and the Boston Public Health Commission reported as of March 24 that number has jumped to 133 confirmed/presumptive positive cases among Boston residents with two confirmed deaths. .

So far everyone has heard the call from the President, Governor, Mayor and healthcare professionals to begin practicing social distancing.

But why is this such an important practice?

What we know so far is COVID-19 is behaving differently than the common flu, SARS or even H1N1. In those diseases the infected person begins infecting others once they start showing symptoms, i.e. fever, cough, sneezing.

Those studying COVID-19 and the rapidly changing situations across the globe now know the new virus can be spread person to person even if the infected person is showing no symptoms.

This is why social distancing remains an urgent defense to spreading the virus past the point of no return.

While many of those infected with COVID-9 recover, a percentage will develop a more harsher case of the virus, others will require hospitalization and those with underlying health conditions and are over the age of 60 may develop severe cases that could lead to pulmonary collapse and death.

For young healthy people social distancing is not necessarily to protect against the virus but a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 from relatively healthy people to a population more ‘at-risk’ of developing serious complications.

Dr. Emily Malavenda, a physician living in Eagle Hill said she has been upset by what she has witnessed around town over the weekend.

“It has been quite upsetting for me to still see group gatherings in East Boston, especially in Bremen Street Park, American Legion Park and Revere Beach this past weekend,” she said. “I am going into work at a local hospital where I take care of many of my own neighbors from East Boston and I am doing my best to keep myself and our community safe. I understand how difficult this is emotionally and can only begin to imagine how difficult this is going to be financially, especially for those who don’t have work during this time.”

However, Malavenda said she can’t do her job unless we do ours.

“Please commit to strict physical distancing of six feet or more from non-household members if you must be in public for necessities such as groceries, solitary exercise, medical needs,” said Malaveda. “Even though our governor has not yet enforced a stricter legal standard, we can be exemplary citizens and do the right thing. We can do this together, Eastie. I know I am not the only one in this position. Do it for all of us.”

A graph circulated by health care professionals shows the importance of social distancing.

If an infected person walking around unaware they have the virus can, in five days time, spread the disease to 2.5 people. Those 2.5 others can, in roughly 30 days time, spread the virus to 406 people.

A person infected that practices a 50 percent reduction in their social activity by staying home would only spread the virus to 1.25 people in five days time. Those 1.5 people would then only spread the virus to 15 others in 30 days time.

The most compelling figure is if an infected person ups their social distancing by 75 percent they would potentially only infect .625 people in 5 days. Those .625 people would then only infect another 2.5 people in 30 days time.

These numbers are the power of social distancing in this time.

While telling people to limit social interaction, closing bars, and cancelling public events may seem draconian it is nothing new according to healthcare professionals.

A study of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic that killed millions around the globe compared measures taken in Philadelphia compared to measures taken in St. Louis.

As the Spanish Flu began to gain national headlines, city leaders ignored warnings and calls for social distancing by the government. It was the height of WWI and Philly officials decided to throw a parade for the soldiers leaving for Europe.

Three days later Philly’s hospitals were overrun with sick and dying patients. By the end of the week 4,500 residents were dead.

However, in St. Louis city leaders listened to warnings and after its first confirmed case of Spanish Flu decided to close schools, playgrounds, libraries, courtrooms, and even churches. Work shifts were staggered and streetcar ridership was strictly limited. Public gatherings of more than 20 people were banned.

These measures kept the per capita Spanish Flu-related deaths in St. Louis to less than half of those in Philly some 900 miles away.

Most health experts agree that social distancing can have a huge effect on the spread of the disease before 1 percent of the total population is infected.

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