What is social distancing, and why does it matter?

Sam Ribakoff
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON – Over the last few weeks the phrase “social distancing” has become a daily part of our vocabulary. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal public health agency that’s tasked with controlling the spread of diseases, social distancing is simply maintaining a distance of at least six feet between yourself and other people.

The CDC recommends that people use social distancing because the coronavirus spreads mainly through person-to-person contact when respiratory droplets travel from an infected person coughing, sneezing, or simply talking, to the mouth or nose of a non-infected person.

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Even people not showing symptoms of the disease, often referred to as people who are asymptomatic, can still be infected and be carriers for the virus.      

The overall number or percentage of asymptomatic carriers of the virus is unknown at this time, but a recent CDC report found that 46.5% of the 712 passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship who tested positive for the virus showed no symptoms.

The reproduction number, or the amount of people that a single person infected with the coronavirus is on average likely to infect themselves is still being studied, with reported numbers from the CDC listing the number as 2.79, and Chinese medical sources listing the number as even higher. Meaning a single person with the coronavirus is, on average, likely to give the virus to two to possibly three, or more, people.

Studies on the reproduction number associated with the seasonal flu differ, but one medical review from 2014 concluded that the season flu has a reproduction number of around 1.28.

This is why states and public health departments around the country have closed down public events and any space where people might gather in close proximity, besides businesses deemed essential to stay open, like grocery stores. 

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Data shows that the social distancing measures enacted by New Mexico are working, according to New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase.

During a Facebook Live video on the governor’s page, Scrase said the doubling rate for coronavirus cases has slowed from doubling every two days to doubling every four days.

New Mexico is also seeing lower rates of coronavirus than most states in the country.

To further prevent against asymptomatic spread of the virus, the CDC is advising people to wear protective cloth face masks while out in public at grocery stores and other essential services where maintaining social distancing is difficult. The CDC is not recommending people wear N95 or surgical face masks, which are in short supply and critically needed for health care workers.

The new billboard about social distancing and self-isolation for COVID-19 is unveiled on March 29 on New Mexico Highway 264 in Tsé Bonito.

"People need to stay home unless absolutely essential. Period,” wrote David Morgan, spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health, in a statement sent to The Daily Times. ”If you are going somewhere that is not essential and you cannot remain a safe distance from people, that is unsafe; that is not social distancing, and you could be contributing to the spread of COVID-19. This not a vacation, not a holiday, it is a medical pandemic – the likes of which we have not seen since in a century. Initially thought by young people that they’d be invulnerable, we’re seeing cases with patients in their 20s. None of us are invulnerable; we are all touchable by this virus, and even if it doesn’t directly harm us there’s not a guarantee it would not profoundly affect someone we love, the stranger next to us in line, anyone. We can’t emphasize this enough:  Stay home, social distance, stop the spread and save lives."

The first-time social distancing was mentioned in a public health emergency order by the Navajo Department of Health was two days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on the reservation.

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That March 19 order was for the residents of Chilchinbeto, Arizona, which was deemed a hot spot for the disease by the health department due to the increase of positive cases for COVID-19.

Residents were required to maintain social distancing when practicing in outdoor activities such as walking, hiking or running.

Another order by the health department on March 20 required all residents on the Navajo Nation to stay at home, but if they do leave to shop for necessities, they must adhere to social distancing standards.

With more than 250 confirmed positive tests for COVID-19, health care providers and tribal officials are increasing calls for social distancing to stop the community spread of the virus.

Brian Johnson, acting deputy director for Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said on April 3 that if communities want to stop COVID-19, they must use social distancing.

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"Your clinicians – your doctor, your nurse – when you see them, they can treat the illness, but let's work together to prevent the illness. If we respect social distancing, the Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated that is the most effective means to slowing and ultimately stopping this disease," Johnson said at a town hall meeting on Facebook Live.

The Navajo Health Command Operations Center has a hotline to answer calls about the virus.

Jill Jim, director for the health department, said among the complaints made on the hotline is that people are not practicing social distancing.

"People are still standing within distance and right next to each other. People are still holding hands out in the community, that's not social distancing," Jim said during the meeting.

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Everyone must listen and practice social distancing, she said.

"Don't be shy to tell someone that they're standing too close to you when you're in the community because those are the recommendations that we're messaging over and over," Jim said.

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.

Reporters Hannah Grover and Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.

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