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How does social distancing change infection rates and speed?

Officials throughout the U.S. and the world are urging people to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic—and with good reason. Maintaining social distance prevents the spread of COVID-19 from person to person. The virus spreads via water droplets which are expelled by the coughing or sneezing of infected individuals. Each person who comes in contact with someone carrying the coronavirus can then infect others, even if they are not displaying symptoms. 

By implementing safety measures such as social distancing—which means mostly remaining at home and keeping non-family members six feet away from you when out in public—contact between people is greatly reduced. That also minimizes the virus’ spread. As potential vectors are isolated via quarantine and social distancing, the virus dies out.

What does it mean for infection rates and spread if people don’t socially distance?

Schematics for the spread of coronavirus have already been put together and analyzed. Ultimately, there is no longer a way to completely contain the virus. However, according to a report from the New York Times, the scale of measures taken will have a heavy impact on how soon the rate of infection will peak. 

This is where the trending phrase “flatten the curve” comes into play. By flattening the curve, you spread out the infection rate over time instead of having everybody get sick at once, giving medical professionals more time to treat those who are sick.

The model used by the Times shows that moderate social distancing and quarantine measures will have infection rates peaking around June 2020. Choosing to implement no measures shows a sweep of the virus across the country peaking in May with 200,000 additional people becoming infected. However, “substantial” measures of social distancing show a manageable rate of infection, where hundreds of thousands of people avoid getting infection and the curve remains low. 

If the creation rate of new vectors of infection is slowed by social distance, the virus could be limited in areas where it hasn’t already taken hold. That means the U.S. healthcare system wouldn’t be overwhelmed quite as much and more sick people could get help and hopefully avoid dying from the virus. 
Sources: UCSF, New York Times, CDC, CNBC


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