All three boil down to limiting contact with others—just on different scales.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated March 23, 2020

Along with the rest of the world, the US is in the grips of a coronavirus pandemic right now: Schools are closing, large events are being canceled, and stores are selling out of essentials as customers stockpile supplies in preparation for spending lots of time at home.

While stockpiling is not advised, federal health officials are recommending that all Americans practice "social distancing" to lower the odds of person-to-person contact, which could increase the risk of transmitting the COVD-19 coronavirus.

The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are now calling on all Americans, even if they're young and otherwise healthy, to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more people. The new guidance, issued March 16, also implores Americans to do their part of by working (or schooling) from home when possible; using drive-through, pickup, or delivery options instead of eating or drinking at bars, restaurants, and food courts; and avoiding "discretionary travel," including shopping trips and social visits.

The CDC also advises self-isolation for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as those who may have been exposed to it. That's not the case in harder-hit places like Italy, however, which has placed its 60 million residents on lockdown in an effort to halt the spread of the disease, according to CNN.

In terms of helping limit the spread of coronavirus, self-quarantine and self-isolation of infected and potentially infected individuals is helpful, but some experts say it may not be enough, and that's where the concept of social distancing comes into play.

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What does "social distancing" mean?

According to the CDC, social distancing is defined as "remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible." Congregate settings include crowded public spaces like shopping centers, movie theaters, and stadiums, explains the CDC.

Past that though, it's hard for the average person to know what "social distancing" truly means when it comes to their daily lives—questions around going to work, the grocery store, and even the gym arise. But, for the average (and again, healthy) person, measures don't necessarily have to be as drastic as never leaving your home.

"For the average person, social distancing might mean not taking nonessential trips, trying to be mindful of how much contact they have with other people, working remotely, and not attending mass gatherings or taking part in activities that might expose them to the virus,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health.

Those recommendations change a bit, however, if you're part of the elderly or immunocompromised population. In that case, Dr. Adalja says it may be wise to be a little more stringent in limiting your contact with others—like spending more time at home and limiting contact with others even further. But overall, Dr. Adalja says it comes down to knowing your own personal health risks and using common sense. "Just be careful when you're out and be aware of the exposure risk you're facing," he says.

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How is it different from self-isolation and self-quarantine?

Essentially, all three of these terms—social distancing, self-isolation (or isolation), and self-quarantine (or quarantine)—boil down to one thing: limiting personal and social contact, but on different levels.

According to the CDC, isolation and self-isolation separate sick people from those who aren't ill, and it can happen under medical supervision or not. Quarantine and self-quarantine, on the other hand, refers to separating and restricting the movement of those who are not yet sick, but have been exposed to the virus to see if they become sick.

The procedures for those who are self-isolating or self-quarantining for COVID-19 are similar, per the CDC: to stay home away from the general public and even limit contact with those they live with who are not infected with the virus.

The CDC also recommends those who are self-isolating or self-quarantining monitor their symptoms carefully (and stay in communication with their doctor if symptoms develop or worsen), get enough rest and stay hydrated, practice rigorous handwashing or use hand sanitizer frequently and according to directions, avoid sharing personal items with others in their household, and clean household surfaces regularly. If you are ill, try to confine yourself to one room and sleep alone. Also important: While the general healthy public is advised not to wear masks, those who are ill with COVID-19 and are around people should protect others by wearing a face mask.

Practicing social distancing vs. sheltering in place

Several states and counties have issued "shelter in place" orders that call on residents to stay home unless their job is essential to public health and safety. In other states and localities, including California, people are under "stay home" or "stay at home" orders. New Yorkers, meantime, are subject to an executive order dubbed "New York State on PAUSE"—Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone. In each case, the intent is to keep people from congregating. Government and public health officials hope that directing residents to stay home and away from others as much as possible will slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, none these policies prevent people from leaving their homes for essential activities, like buying groceries, picking up prescriptions, or walking the dog. In that respect, shelter in place, stay at home, and PAUSE are compatible with social distancing. When you're out and about, you should maintain a buffer zone of at least 6 feet between yourself and others.

While it's important to take the coronavirus seriously and take appropriate measures for your own health and the health of others, per the advice of public health officials, it's also important to avoid panicking and to keep things in perspective, says Adam Splayer, MD, a board-certified cardiologist.

"You could just live in a bubble and all viruses, including the coronavirus, will still be around when you come up for air," he says. So again, your protection and the protection of others comes down to common sense: Wash your hands, don't touch your face (quite so much), stay away from others if you're sick, and limit situations that make you feel uncomfortable at this time. Essentially, per Dr. Splayer: "Be smart, be safe, and be careful."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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