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The importance of social distancing

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Very little traffic is seen downtown as businesses heed the governor's warning to stay home to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-10 Williamsport Friday.

Although Williamsport and the state are embroiled in a war against an invisible enemy, many are fighting another enemy: The allure of social interaction.

Whether they disagree with what they perceive to be a high-handed governor or are resigned to the impacts of their routine, one thing is certain — people have a strong social pull and will push back if that pull is confronted by obstacles.

“We are fundamentally social animals, and it’s very difficult for us to maintain isolation,” said Dr. Rutul Dalal, medical director of infectious disease at UPMC Susquehanna. “Everyone, no matter their age, should be concerned because of how COVID-19 spreads.”

Even those who feel healthy may pass the infection to others, he said.

“People can be infected, and the evidence suggests they can transmit the virus, a couple of days before they feel sick at all themselves,” said Dr. Dalal.

Not only to protect innocent bystanders but loved ones, the advised method of slowing the spread of COVID-19 is to keep a distance from others and stay home, if possible.

Children especially have often had milder symptoms when infected, or even no symptoms at all, but can still transmit the disease to more susceptible individuals.

“The major concern with social interactions is that most germs are spread by hand contact; all of us touch our face hundreds of times a day without being aware of it; and viruses can persist on non-porous surfaces, like elevator buttons and door handles, for many hours,” he said. “The best way to protect our most vulnerable fellow citizens and loved ones is to maintain the social distancing measures.”

Evidence from earlier pandemics, going back to the 1918 Spanish Flu has also shown that these measures work to “reduce spread and flatten the curve,” he said.

This will not only keep hospitals from becoming overrun and exhausted of supplies but will save lives by making sure those who are sick can get treated or tested.

Seasonality, or the coming and going with the temperatures, as seen in other strains of influenza is not a given with COVID-19, he said.

“The global health community does not yet know that answer,” said Dalal. “Some other viruses, like the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months, but that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months.”

“There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity and other features associated with COVID-19, and scientific investigations are ongoing,” he said.

Health authorities do know how it is transmitted, however.

“The disease is thought to be spread when the infected person coughs or sneezes. This releases droplets that can land in the mouth or nose or be inhaled by someone nearby,” Dalal said. “It is presumed that COVID-19 also can spread if people touch an infected surface or object and later touch their mouth, nose, or eyes.”

The typical surgical masks, which do not form a seal around the mouth, do not offer enough protection for healthy people.

Though the larger “droplets” will be stopped by the mask, smaller particles will still be breathed in around the sides of the mask.

“To prevent the spread of infection, the World Health Organization recommends health care workers, infected people, or people showing symptoms wear facemasks,” said Dalal. “Healthy people should only wear facemasks if they’re taking care of someone who is infected, the WHO says. People who are well and who aren’t in close contact with someone who is infected should not wear them.”

Instead, Dalal said he recommends people: practice hand hygiene, by washing them often with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer; clean surfaces often, like countertops, light switches and cellphones; stay home if you are sick; practice social distancing of about 6 feet; and get routine flu shots or vaccinations.

“If you suspect you have COVID-19 and aren’t having high fever or breathing problems, please call your primary care physician to get initial advice. Doing this from home is best for all and limits spread of any infection; if needed, your provider can guide you safely to the next care site,” he said. “If you have high fever or breathing trouble, go to your emergency department — UPMC sites are ready to provide care. Do not go to the emergency department for a simple cough or mild fever.”

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