Social distancing

To prevent infection, floor markings help people maintain a proper “social distance” between each other. Experts say the same practice goes for the outside. (Photo by GotoVan/Wikipeida)

Earlier this week, Gov. Polis enacted statewide restrictions for Coloradans to stay at home, something Telluriders had already been doing.

There are exceptions to the order, such as getting outside to purchase groceries or medications, or to get some exercise. 

In addition, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, citizens are to maintain a “social distance” of six feet between each other. 

The six-foot edict doesn’t apply to family members who live together (unless one of them has contracted the coronavirus, and is quarantined inside the home). But it does raise a question: given all that surrounding space in the big open, why is maintaining a distance of six feet between each other even necessary? 

“It’s a great question,” said Grace Franklin, San Miguel County’s public health director. “My background is in public health. I’m not the medical director for our county,” she emphasized. “But my understanding is that this virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets. What’s the chance that somebody, while they’re talking, might spit a little too far?”

If you’re standing indoors next to someone and that happens, Franklin said, “you probably have a higher risk” of contracting the virus than you would if you were speaking to that person while you were outside. “But what if someone sneezes?” she went on. “I know for myself, even if I’m working at my desk and I cover my nose with my elbow, sometimes you can see little droplets that you may not expect.”

So what if you were standing outside next to someone who sneezed, and those droplets blew away on the wind?

“What if the wind came from the other direction?” Franklin countered. “Inside a space, the possibility of contamination from the virus is inherently greater. A lot of it has to do with ventilation and touching doorknobs” as well as breathing on each other. 

“There are inherently fewer risks of transmission outside, but they’re not absent,” she added. “They still exist. The flip side is, if you’re out backcountry skiing or on a pretty long hike, your ability to practice proper hygiene is lower than when you’re indoors. I know for myself, reaching for my hand-sanitizer if I’m hungry is not my first thought. All these little risk factors add up quickly. And globally, there’s been data that has shown that people who don’t even know they’re carrying it can be transmitting the virus.”

Kartik Patel, a primary-care physician at UC Health Denver, said the six-foot recommendation came from “virology and respiratory” research conducted by a Vanderbilt University physician demonstrating that “any time someone coughs or sneezes, there’s a six-foot-radius around that person” — and that whoever is within that radius “will be inhaling the same particles. It’s been a steadfast rule for a while,” Patel said, but with the advent of Covid-19, “this is more in the limelight.

“So, yes, when someone coughs or sneezes outdoors, much of that stuff should dilute pretty nicely,” he added. “But the fact remains, if you’re in the close vicinity of that person, you can still inhale those particles. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know who is a carrier.” 

This strain of coronavirus is “highly contagious,” Patel added. “We know one person can infect up to three people at once, and the numbers keep replicating.” 

Which is why the recommendations to gather in groups came down from 100 people to 50 people to (right now) no more than 10, he added. “A perfect, unfortunate example is a physician I know in New York City who told me about a family of six who were all diagnosed with Covid-19, just by being in close quarters and visiting with each other.”

“I think everyone should still try to get out and exercise,” Patel said. “Getting out is really helpful right now to protect people from going stir crazy and getting anxious. As long as people are careful, they can keep doing what they’re doing. It’s just important to maintain that physical separation, so people don’t get sick.”

“These parameters,” such as maintaining six feet of separation, “are really less about the individual and more about the collective whole,” Franklin added. “How do you protect the most vulnerable? You do it by maintaining proper distance, and practicing proper hand hygiene. The fact that we’re sheltering in place makes it a lot easier,” but even out of doors, no one right now should let their guard down.