Mar. 23 2020

Expert Advice on Social Distancing

Over the last week, as new rules and recommendations to prevent the spread of coronavirus were introduced across the country, millions of Americans were confronted with stark changes to their usual way of life in the name of social distancing. In a new video, Columbia Mailman School Professor Stephen Morse provides a brief introduction to the concept and why it’s so important. (Watch the video below.)

Like the flu, the virus behind COVID-19 spreads via the respiratory route—either directly through droplets expelled by an infected person who coughs or sneezes onto another susceptible person or indirectly when a susceptible person touches an infected surface and then touches their face. But compared to most flu varieties, coronavirus is more contagious and the resulting illness can be more severe, with a greater chance of hospitalization and death.

Dozens of cities and nations have adopted measures to protect their populations by closing schools, restaurants, and other non-essential businesses. In addition, many of these areas have asked residents to limit contact with others and stay inside as much as possible. According to Morse, when we must go outside—for groceries, for example—we should stay at least six feet apart from other people. But most of our time should be spent at home.

“If [people] are able to stay at home and avoid contact with others, to some degree at least, we would be cutting down the opportunities for this virus to transmit itself,” Morse explains in the Columbia News video. “That would prevent a lot of the cases that would otherwise occur.”

Morse, an infectious disease epidemiologist, also hosted a virtual town hall about COVID-19 on March 13, and has been widely quoted in the media. He served as global co-director of PREDICT, a program to detect and discover coronaviruses and other viruses with pandemic potential in animal hosts. He was the founding chair of ProMED (the nonprofit international Program to Monitor Emerging Diseases) and was an originator of ProMED-mail, an international network for outbreak reporting and disease monitoring online. He teaches a class in emerging infectious diseases that includes several hours on coronaviruses, among other topics. 

“We can’t eliminate the risk [of coronavirus infection] completely … but we can take precautions to reduce that risk by using social distancing,” he said. “I know that sounds terribly anti-social, but it’s for our own good and we should all be doing that.”