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Photo: Joshua Lott/The New York Times
Photo: Joshua Lott/The New York Times

Georgia Tech professor explains how social distancing slows spread of COVID-19

Pinar Keskinocak is a Georgia Tech professor with extensive expertise and publications on pandemic flu, and more generally, health systems. 

She is the William W. George Chair and Professor, ISyE; ADVANCE Professor, College of Engineering; and Director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems. 

In this guest column, Keskinocak explains the necessity of social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to gain a foothold in Georgia where cases rose from 99 on Sunday to 121 today.

By Pinar Keskinocak

Socializing can help you live a longer, happier, healthier life. But in a viral outbreak, research shows that “social distancing” can benefit your own health and that of entire populations.

Knowledge of the exact dynamics of COVID-19’s spread is still limited – its progression from person to person and contagion patterns within communities. But we do know some similarities with the spread of seasonal and pandemic flu: People transmit coronavirus when they cough, sneeze or talk, sending droplets through the air, or when they put the virus on surfaces. An infected person may experience no significant symptoms yet infect others.

Add for COVID-19 the possibility that droplets remaining in the air could infect others even after the sick person is gone. 

All this is enough knowledge to take action, and social distancing – voluntary quarantine or self-isolation – is one of the most effective non-medical interventions for slowing the spread of infectious disease.

Dr. Pinar Keskinocak

Think of an infected person with symptoms like a dry bush on fire. If there are other dry bushes nearby, the fire is likely to spread, and the more dry bushes, the faster and farther the spread. Putting a wall or water around the burning bush stops the spread.

Viral spread dynamics are similar, but unlike bushes, people can also move around. On a positive note, those who have been infected and recovered may be like bushes with armor that offers protection from catching or spreading fire again.

Social distancing is most effective when people who are sick with symptoms stay home until they have gained that immune system armor. In addition, people with a sick household member should stay home, even if they do not have symptoms themselves to reduce community transmissions from not only symptomatic but also asymptomatic infected individuals.

Research on pandemic flu at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that if enough people voluntarily socially distance, they can slow the spread of infection, “infection attack rate,” lower the “peak infection,” the point in the outbreak with the highest number of people infected, and delay the timing of the peak. Delaying the peak is important because it gives communities, businesses, and health systems more time to prepare to cope with the stresses of an outbreak. 

Reducing the peak reduces the strain on limited resources, especially health services, and reduces the possibility of major disruptions in supply chains, and the delivery of products and services, including in healthcare and medicine, and the resulting damage to the economy. Reducing the total number of infections most importantly reduces the death toll and the populations’ need for medical care.

In addition to individual interactions, social distancing should expand to the community level with caution about social gatherings and high travel volume. While airplanes might be relatively safe due to high levels of air filtration, the same is not necessarily true for airports or other spaces where masses of people gather, breathe the same air and touch the same surfaces. Social distancing reduces work absenteeism by lowering the chances of transmission among workers.

Being a social butterfly or being tough and going to work even when you were sick may have been your badge of honor in the past. But just like socializing, solitude also has benefits, increasing empathy, productivity, creativity, and mental strength, and giving us an opportunity to make plans to better enjoy our lives. 

This may be a great time to put down our wings and enjoy some peaceful solitude, for our own sake, and the sake of others. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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