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Is it OK to go for that walk outdoors? What you need to know about social distancing

We look at the expert advice on the matter.

TWO WEEKS AGO, the phrase ‘social distancing’ was not in your average person’s lexicon.

Now, due to the coronavirus outbreak (which has almost 180k confirmed cases worldwide), it’s a word we’re all hearing multiple times a day – and it’s one people are googling in their droves:

21129 Source: Statista

However, people might still have questions around what is social distancing, why we need to do it, and what it means when you’re outdoors in particular.

So let’s take a look at what the experts are saying.

What is social distancing?

safe-greetings Source: WHO

Essentially it means minimising your contact with other people, in order to minimise the risk of transmission/contracting the disease caused by this new coronavirus, Covid-19. 

People are to undertake social distancing alongside the hand hygiene measures recommended by the HSE (washing your hands regularly, particularly when you leave the house or come back into the house), and keeping high-touch surfaces clean and disinfected.

The World Health Organization says that the social distancing distance is one metre (three feet), though they specifically say this pertains to “between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing”.

The US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that distance should be larger. It defines social distancing as: “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 metres) from others when possible.”

The HSE agrees with the CDC on this two-metre distance.

The need for social distancing is why the Irish government has said all indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled.

It’s also why pubs were ordered to close from last Sunday. 

It’s why people are being encouraged to work from home, when they can, in order “to reduce unnecessary face-to-face interaction in the workplace”, and why break time and working times should be staggered and meetings done remotely or by phone.

The aim of social distancing is to reduce the number of people who get Covid-19, but also to ‘flatten the curve’ and ensure that there isn’t a peak in cases, putting pressure on the health system. Flattening the curve means that even if the same amount of people get Covid-19, the cases are spread out.

(We have a more in-depth piece on flattening the curve here.)

Countries around the world have implemented social distancing as a way of curbing transmission rates. 

What does the HSE say about social distancing?

On its website, the HSE explains that social distancing: 

“ is important to help slow the spread of coronavirus. It does this by minimising contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals.”

So, what does it advise people do?

  • You should keep a space of 2 metres (6.5 feet) between you and other people
  • Reduce interactions with people outside the workplace and home
  • Reduce the number of people you meet every day
  • You should avoid communal sleeping areas
  • You should avoid crowded places
  • People should work from home if possible

What should you not do?

  • Do not shake hands or make close contact, if possible.

In addition, it says that:

  • Everyone should limit unnecessary social contact as much as possible
  • At-risk groups should avoid close contact with people outside the home.

Does social distancing mean I can’t go outdoors?

No.

In fact, being outdoors is good for a number of reasons. But because so many people have been heading outdoors in the past week, there have been worries about groups congregating, and what impact that could have on transmission rates.

Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service said today that there was an upsurge in people visiting parks over the weekend, but that people still need to maintain social distancing. 

“To this end, the NPWS is encouraging small walking groups – with a distance of approximately 2 metres between individuals  – to avail of the numerous walks within the Parks and Reserves,” it said. 

“The NPWS asks individuals to avoid congregating closely in large groups, even in these outdoor areas.”

We spoke to public health expert Dr Anthony Staines (who you might have heard on The Explainer podcast) to find out more.

When it comes to being outdoors, he said that “the risk of spreading the virus is less outdoors because there’s more space”. This is similar to what Dr Kim Roberts (who you might also have heard on the podcast) told us this week – that outside, the coronavirus doesn’t survive as well, “for a whole host of environmental reasons: the air, the temperature changes, the humidity, all of those things can affect how the virus survives”. 

Roberts said that social distancing can be “incredibly powerful” and can vastly cut down on transmission rates.

However, that doesn’t mean that big gatherings outdoors are fine. Staines used Cheltenham as an example: “You had 60,000 people, many of them outdoors, but the risk of spreading was quite high because they were very close together”.

As he put it, “there is nothing magic about being outside”. When you’re outside, you still have to put that 2-metre or so gap between yourself and people you might pass.

“If you are on a walk, don’t form into clumps of 20 people,” said Staines. “A lot of it is common sense. This isn’t a case of everyone goes to their own mountain top and lives on it for the next three months. It’s about staying intelligently distant from people.”

This is all aimed at people who are healthy – as the Covid-19 virus is relatively infectious, those who are ill should follow instructions given to them when diagnosed with it. Those who suspect they may have it and are waiting for a test should follow the GP’s advice and also self-isolate before they get the test result back, said Staines.

So these people, those with symptoms or the illness, should not be outside.

However, there may be people who are asymptomatic, or ill but not realise it yet, outside and so this is the risk that we are talking about when it comes to being outdoors.

“If you’re not symptomatic it is about staying distant from people,” said Staines.

He said that even if you are waiting for the bus, socially distance yourself. “If you are all standing together side-by-side waiting, then you are not social distancing.”

As this is a new virus, scientists are still learning about it and how it is spread. “As far as we know this is spread by droplets as opposed to aerosols,” said Staines. “Droplets are bigger and they fall out of the air very quickly so the advice is the same as ever – use tissues, use your elbow [to cough or sneeze into]. If you are coughing and have nothing else, cough away from people.” You should also bin that tissue.

“This is a virus where the spread is commonly by relatively close contact, which is not true for all viruses – there are some where very casual contact can give you an infection.”

Why going outdoors is good for us

Staines said – as did Dr Kim Roberts in our piece on Monday – that going outdoors is good for people at the moment.

“If the population spends three months in our homes we’ll all be completely wrecked when we come out. This is a hard time for everybody – minding your mental health, minding your physical health is more important than it ever was.”

“If you like walking up mountains, walk away – but leave a little distance between you and the next group of people.”

What about play dates?

Is it true that children are ‘vectors’? Staines said this is something that is not actually known yet. The Chinese data says that children there were mostly infected by adults in their families – but most Chinese families have just one child. 

Earlier this week, at a HSE briefing the country’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn was asked about the risk of playdates.

He said:

“What we’ve said is if children still continue to mix with other children in the way that they would normally do, then the measures we have recommended and taken this week won’t be as effective as we want them to be.

“But our recommendations are not absolutist. Children still need to have a normal life, we recognise that, so children will still play with other children. 

“What we are asking though in as much as it it is possible, whether they’re adults or children, reduce their level of discretionary social contacts.

“Children can still play outside, they can still play in small groups, but what we don’t want is big groups of children getting together like they would in the summer holidays for example.”

That said, one consultant – who wasn’t speaking for the HSE, but in her own capacity – recommended that people go even further than this. Speaking to RTÉ, Dr Anne Marie McLaughlin, consultant in respiratory medicine at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, urged parents to keep their children away from other children to stop the spread of the virus.

She said in her opinion, children should not have contact with people outside of their household contacts.

Here’s more on children and play dates.

Healthy and small

handshaking Source: WHO

When it comes to social distancing and meeting people, perhaps the smartest approach is best summed up by Dr Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who told the New York Times:

“The smaller the gathering, the healthier the people are to start with, the lower the risk of the situation is going to be.”

But as the WHO’s director general pointed out this week, social distancing is only one part of the approach. It is encouraging countries to “test, test, test” alongside other measures:

We have also seen a rapid escalation in social distancing measures, like closing schools and cancelling sporting events and other gatherings. But we have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing – which is the backbone of the response.
Social distancing measures can help to reduce transmission and enable health systems to cope. Handwashing and coughing into your elbow can reduce the risk for yourself and others.
But on their own, they are not enough to extinguish this pandemic. It’s the combination that makes the difference. But the most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate.

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