Social distancing measures are most effective when the infectious disease spreads via one or more of the following methods, droplet contact (coughing or sneezing), direct physical contact (including sexual contact), indirect physical contact (such as by touching a contaminated surface), and airborne transmission (if the microorganism can survive in the air for long periods). The measures are less effective when an infection is transmitted primarily via contaminated water or food or by vectors such as mosquitoes or other insects.
Authorities have encouraged or mandated social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic as it is an important method of preventing transmission of COVID-19. COVID-19 is much more likely to spread over short distances than long ones. However, it can spread over distances longer than 2 m (6 ft) in enclosed, poorly ventilated places and with prolonged exposure.
Although the term “social distancing” was not introduced until the 21st century, social-distancing measures date back to at least the 5th century BC. The Bible contains one of the earliest known references to the practice in the Book of Leviticus 13:46: “And the leper in whom the plague is… he shall dwell alone; [outside] the camp shall his habitation be.”. During the Plague of Justinian of 541 to 542, Emperor Justinian enforced an ineffective quarantine on the Byzantine Empire, including dumping bodies into the sea; he predominantly blamed the widespread outbreak on “Jews, Samaritans, pagans, heretics, Arians, Montanists and homosexuals”. In modern times, social distancing measures have been successfully implemented in several epidemics.
In St. Louis, shortly after the first cases of influenza were detected in the city during the 1918 flu pandemic, authorities implemented school closures, bans on public gatherings, and other social-distancing interventions. The influenza fatality rates in St. Louis were much less than in Philadelphia, which had fewer cases of influenza but allowed a mass parade to continue and did not introduce social distancing until more than two weeks after its first cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested using the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” because it is a physical separation that prevents transmission; people can remain socially connected by meeting outdoors at a safe distance (when there is no stay-at-home order) and by meeting via technology.
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