Even in less challenging times, many of us try to avoid close contact with someone who is sneezing, coughing, or running a fever to avoid getting sick ourselves. Our attention to such issues has now been dramatically heightened by the emergence of a novel coronavirus causing a pandemic of an illness known as COVID-19.
Many have wondered if we couldn’t simply protect ourselves by avoiding people with symptoms of respiratory illness. Unfortunately, the answer is no. A new study shows that simply avoiding symptomatic people will not go far enough to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because researchers have discovered that many individuals can carry the novel coronavirus without showing any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. But these asymptomatic or only mildly ill individuals can still shed virus and infect others.
This conclusion adds further weight to the recent guidance from U.S. public health experts: what we need most right now to slow the stealthy spread of this new coronavirus is a full implementation of social distancing.
“Social distancing not only reduces transmission of the coronavirus, but the vacating of public places also creates possible sites to set up makeshift hospitals on and ease chronic congestion in existing medical facilities.”
― Stewart Stafford
What exactly does social distancing mean? Well, for starters, it is recommended that people stay at home as much as possible, going out only for critical needs like groceries and medicines, or to exercise and enjoy the outdoors in wide open spaces. Other recommendations include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, no handshakes, regular handwashing, and, when encountering someone outside of your immediate household, trying to remain at least 6 feet apart.
These may sound like extreme measures. But the new study by NIH-funded researchers, published in the journal Science, documents why social distancing may be our best hope to slow the spread of COVID-19 . Here are a few highlights of the paper, which looks back to January 2020 and mathematically models the spread of the coronavirus within China:
- For every confirmed case of COVID-19, there are likely another five to 10 people with undetected infections.
- Although they are thought to be only about half as infectious as individuals with confirmed COVID-19, individuals with undetected infections were so prevalent in China that they apparently were the infection source for 86 percent of confirmed cases.
- After China established travel restrictions and social distancing, the spread of COVID-19 slowed considerably.
As these new findings clearly demonstrate, each of us must take social distancing seriously in our daily lives.
Social distancing helped blunt the pandemic in China, and it will work in other nations, including the United States. While many Americans will likely spend weeks working and studying from home and practicing other social distancing measures, the stakes remain high. If this pandemic isn’t contained, this novel coronavirus could well circulate around the globe for years to come, at great peril to us and our loved ones.
In the meantime, social distancing remains one of the best weapons we have to slow the silent spread of this virus and flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will give our health-care professionals, hospitals, and other institutions more valuable time to prepare, protect themselves, and aid the many people whose lives may be on the line from this coronavirus.
Importantly, saving lives from COVID-19 requires all of us—young, old and in-between—to take part. Healthy young people, whose risk of dying from coronavirus is not zero but quite low, might argue that they shouldn’t be constrained by social distancing. However, the research highlighted here demonstrates that such individuals are often the unwitting vector for a dangerous virus that can do great harm—and even take the lives of older and more vulnerable people. Think about your grandparents. Then skip the big gathering. We are all in this together
 Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2). Li R, Pei S, Chen B, Song Y, Zhang T, Yang W, Shaman J. Science. 16 March 2020. [Preprint ahead of publication]
 NIH clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release, March 16, 2020.