A Maine Health Official Explains What 'Social Distancing' Means And How It Could Help

Mar 13, 2020

As some buildings are closing, sports events are being canceled, and colleges and universities around the state are closing their campuses in favor of online learning people are being encouraged to practice 'social distancing.' To find out exactly what that means, Maine Public’s Nora Flaherty spoke Friday, by phone, with MaineHealth Chief Improvement Officer Dr. Dora Anne Mills.

Mills: The whole idea, the whole purpose of social distancing is to flatten what's called the epidemic curve. So what we know with an epidemic is you get this surge of patients who get sick, and they tend to get sick a lot at the same time, and that can put a strain on the health care system. So what you're doing with social distancing is to make sure that fewer people get sick all at once. And so there may be even the same number of people over time who get sick, but they don't get sick all at the same time or all at the same time period.

So what you do is you try to spread people out, literally. I mean, you can't catch an infectious disease like this, this coronavirus, if you are separated from somebody by a few feet, and particularly if they're not sneezing or coughing. So you're trying to spread people out, literally. And so you do things like try to see if people can work from home. And even if not, everybody can work from home, but you have a workplace with 200 people and, you know, and 70, 70 percent of the people can work from home, that's better because they're spread out, and you don't have as many people in the office building.

Especially for those are at risk for severe disease, like our people who are older, particularly those over 60, people who have serious chronic medical conditions. We ask that they stay mostly at home right now, that they not go into the store, particularly when it's crowded, that they not travel and not travel on an airplane, they're not going on a cruise and that they avoid crowds. In fact, the official recommendations from CDC is if you're in a high risk group, don't be in groups of people of 10 or more.

Social distancing doesn't mean social isolation. So we want to make sure that people are stayed in touch with. But we can do that, fortunately, these days to phone and video phones and waving through the door. So lots of ways we can stay in touch with people, but that's what social distancing is about, and the whole idea to try to flatten that epidemic curve.

Flaherty: So for those of us who are not in a high risk group and maybe people who have kids as well, what are the best practices for social distancing? What are wthe things we should do?

Mills: We do recommend that people not congregate in large groups -- the 250 has been said as a recommendation here in Maine for right now, that could even go down even lower.

But if you're thinking of a birthday party or going to the movies, I think it might be fine, but I just keep it on the lower side of those numbers.

And people also just making sure that they're being very vigilant with respiratory hygiene -- covering their coughs and sneezes and, you know, being very careful that way.

You know, the two major strategies to flatten the epidemic curve is not only social distancing, but respiratory hygiene, so that people are not if they are encountering each other, they're not as likely to pass germs to each other.

So for those people who are healthy, we still recommend that you practice social distancing, not going into big, big crowds, and think twice about traveling, just to try to keep the transmission lower. We're trying to prevent that surge of disease that could come, preventing that from coming. And, you know, working from home if you're able to, or even spreading out when you're at work. So anything we can do to literally keep away from each other. Going into a restaurant -- I mean, I feel bad because I think restaurants are probably suffering right now, but I think it's okay if you're young and healthy to go to a restaurant, but, you know, it's probably easier right now to get a table that's not squished right up to next somebody else's table. We have meetings at MaineHealth right now, and we're sitting every other seat. We're not having meetings of any size of people, you know, large groups of people, and that is kind of the idea of social distancing is to keep people at least about three to six feet apart.

Flaherty: I saw something about recommending that people not do social events of more than 10 people at this point.

Mills: That's particularly for people who are in high risk. So the U.S. CDC is saying if you are in a high risk category for severe disease, that is if you're sixty of overor you have a serious chronic medical condition, that you not congregate in groups of 10 or more.

Flaherty: Now, I am curious. It is spring and this is Maine. Is it safer for people to get outside and do things? A lot of the warnings I've seen concern indoor activities. Are outdoor activities okay?

Mills: Yes, that's a great question. And yes, it is. It's much safer to be outside. You've got the airflow. You have sunshine. Or rain, I guess, today. But you have elements that actually help to take germs away, and they tend to land on the ground, and then you're not encountering them. So, yes. And I would say that this is also a stressful time, and getting outside is not only better for your physical health, I think it's better for our overall emotional health. I think it's very uplifting to get outside, and particularly as spring is springing.

Flaherty: That's Dora Ann Mills, chief health improvement officer for Main Health.