In order to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, people all over the world are being asked to practice social distancing. But what exactly is it and how does it help with reducing the spread of COVID-19? As an infection prevention and control specialist, these are some of the questions I am being asked routinely by health care providers and community members alike.
Social distancing refers to reducing the likelihood of contact between persons with a suspected or confirmed infection and others who may not be infected. Gatherings and large meetings can contribute to the spread of infectious pathogens such as COVID-19; however, social distancing is an intervention that is helpful to reduce the risk of transmission. We have a responsibility to determine whether or not attending an event is essential or non-essential. For example, a concert or party may be considered a non-essential gathering right now. While a person needing a visit to a medical office may be essential. As such, face-to-face attendance is required, and should proceed with the following social distancing strategies to minimize direct or indirect contact with others.
To better understand why social distancing is recommended, it is important to understand how COVID-19 is spread. COVID-19 is a pathogen spread by droplet/contact transmission. A precautionary distance of 2 meters or 6 feet is sufficient to help prevent the spread of respiratory secretions or droplets. Respiratory droplets like COVID-19 can live on inanimate objects for various lengths of time; therefore, frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces is necessary to reduce the risk of indirect transmission. High touch areas include desks, countertops, doors handles and light switches. Personal objects such as cell phones and other frequently touched items should also be cleaned regularly. By keeping hands away from your face and mouth the virus has no entry point into the body.
Practicing respiratory etiquette which involves sneezing or coughing into a tissue or elbow versus into hands is also recommended but if you happen to forget and use your hands, then be sure to wash with soap and water. Hand washing and hygiene is still the number one method to reduce the risk of infectious transmission. Wash with soap and water for at least 15-20 seconds or if soap and water is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to help prevent the spread. Although many are using masks to help prevent spread, remember that personal protective equipment (PPE) is only as good as the user. In other words, if a mask or a pair of gloves are put on or taken off improperly, transmission of a pathogen can still occur. Therefore, when using PPE, ensure your hands are clean when putting it on, avoid touching your face, and ensure you clean your hands after removal. Keeping gloves or masks on for extended periods does not necessarily increase protection. Cleaning your hands and maintaining appropriate infection prevention practices will reduces risk of contamination and spread.
In this time of uncertainty, your health is paramount and the safety of our communities is dependent on each of us to protect the other. If we practice social distancing and these basic infection prevention and control measures, the elderly and immune-compromised persons, who are most vulnerable and at higher risk of illness, will be also be better protected.
Finally, please remember, that if it’s not essential to be in close contact with others at this time, then stay home and utilize virtual methods to connect with others like teleconferences, Facetime or LIVE media options. Consider the risk you may be taking and make the healthiest choice.
Jackie Nugent, is the manager of the Infection Prevention and Control Department in an acute care hospital.