Social distancing - What are the benefits? How does it work?

Social distancing measures aim to reduce the frequency of contact and increase physical distance between persons, thereby reducing the risks of person-to-person transmission.

Social distancing

Experiences from previous influenza pandemics, in particular the 2009–10 pandemic, have demonstrated that we cannot expect to contain geographically the next influenza pandemic in the location it emerges, nor can we expect to prevent international spread of infection for more than a short period. Vaccines are not expected to be available during the early stage of the next pandemic (1), and stockpiles of antiviral drugs will be limited, mostly reserved for treating more severe illnesses and for patients at higher risk for influenza complications. Therefore, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as social distancing (2), will be heavily relied on by health authorities to slow influenza transmission in the community, with 3 desired outcomes (Figure). The first outcome would be to delay the timing of the peak of infections to buy time for preparations in the healthcare system, the second to reduce the size of the epidemic peak so that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed, and the third to spread infections over a longer time period, enabling better management of those cases and the potential for vaccines to be used at least later in the epidemic to reduce impact.

Six measures in reducing influenza transmission in the community:

  1. isolating ill persons; contact tracing
  2. quarantining exposed persons
  3. school dismissals or closures
  4. workplace measures
  5. workplace closures
  6. and avoiding crowding (Table 1). 

In general, the simulation studies predicted that workplace closures would be able to reduce transmission somewhat in the community, but probably would have a smaller effect on transmission than school closures.

In conclusion, our review found some evidence from observational and simulation studies to support the effectiveness of social distancing measures during influenza pandemics. Timely implementation and high compliance in the community would be useful factors for the success of these interventions.

Fong MW, Gao H, Wong JY, Xiao J, Shiu EYC, Ryu S, et al. Nonpharmaceutical measures for pandemic influenza in nonhealthcare settings—social distancing measures. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 May.