The importance of ‘social distancing’ in warding off the coronavirus

A man wears a mask and goggles as he waits in line to buy face masks from a post office near the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu on February 27, 2020. - The secretive South Korean religious group at the centre of the country's new coronavirus outbreak is a sprawling network so wealthy it can mobilise thousands of believers to hold Pyongyang-style mass performances at Seoul's Olympic stadium. More than half of the country's nearly 1,600 infections are linked to Shincheonji followers. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
A man is pictured wearing a mask and goggles while waiting to buy another mask from a post office in the city Daegu, South Korea, on 27 February. (Getty Images)

Since it emerged at the end of last year, the new coronavirus strain has made headlines all over the world.

With experts rushing to understand how Covid-19 spreads, one of the only pieces of advice officials can offer is to stay back from someone who is coughing and spluttering.

Dubbed “social distancing”, one expert recommends we keep a two-metre (6.5ft) space between a potential patient.

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Covid-19’s confirmed cases exceeded 82,000 on Thursday, of which 78,497 were in mainland China, according to John Hopkins University data.

This is where the virus “jumped” from a mysterious animal into humans at a seafood and live animal market in the city Wuhan.

While cases appear to be plateauing in China, the infection has crossed national borders into more than 30 countries, many thousands of miles away.

South Korea is second to China in patient numbers, with 1,595 confirmed cases and 13 deaths.

Italy is faring worst in Europe, with more than 450 incidences and 12 fatalities.

The UK has tested over 6,000 suspected patients, with 15 coming back positive.

The overall death toll is said to be approaching 3,000.

A South Korean medical worker wearing protective gear speaks over a phone as he visits a residence of people with suspected symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus to take samples, near the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu on February 27, 2020. - South Korea now has 1,766 cases, the highest number in the world outside China, where the disease first emerged in December and has since spread to dozens of countries. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
A medical worker in South Korea is pictured wearing protective gear while speaking on the phone during a visit to suspected coronavirus patients in Daegu on 27 February. (Getty Images)

The importance of ‘social distancing’ in warding off coronavirus Covid-19

Virtually unheard of just two months ago, no one can be certain of the different ways Covid-19 may spread.

Despite rising sales of Dettol, it is unclear whether the virus survives on surfaces.

Evidence suggests Covid-19 may spread via faecal matter, however, this is unproven.

The only known method of transmission is face-to-face via infected droplets sneezed or coughed out by a patient.

The World Health Organization (WHO) therefore recommends people stay “at least one metre (3.2ft)” from “anyone who is coughing or sneezing”.

Covid-19’s symptoms tend to be flu-like, such as fever, breathlessness and cough.

“When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus,” according to the WHO.

“If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease.”

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Four out of five cases are thought to be mild, with a relatively small number of patients succumbing to pneumonia.

Nevertheless, Professor David Heymann – from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – stressed we should all be “self empowered” to stay virus-free for the sake of those who could become seriously unwell, like the elderly or otherwise ill.

“Stay a respectable distance from someone who may be sick,” he said.

Professor Heymann said two metres is likely “reasonable”.

He stressed, however, it depends on “the force of speaking, and if you cough or sneeze”.

While flights are suspended in and out of Wuhan, international travel has left many worried they may catch the infection onboard.

Covid-19 is said to be genetically similar to fellow coronavirus severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2004 outbreak.

One expert even described Covid-19 as the “same species as Sars but a different strain”.

Based on the mapping of infected patients on an aeroplane, Professor Heymann recalled a “hypothesis” where most of the travellers who caught Sars were sitting in the same row – or the row in front or behind – of a patient.

People sitting in “more distant seats” were thought to have become infected in an airport waiting area.

Other ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus Covid-19

The WHO also recommends people clean their hands “regularly and thoroughly” with “an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water”.

With the virus entering the body via the nose, mouth or eyes, avoid touching these areas with “unclean” hands.

Coughing or sneezing into a tissue, which then gets promptly thrown away, should also help stem the spread of infection.

The effectiveness of masks is up for debate, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends them if you are diagnosed.

“You should wear a mask when you are around other people”, it states.

“People who live with you should not stay in the same room with you or they should wear a mask if they enter your room”.

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If you are caring for someone with coronavirus, Professor Heymann recommends both you and they wear a mask for “double protection”.

He adds gloves should be worn so long as they are removed “properly”.

The CDC advises people grasp the outside of one glove at the wrist, without touching skin.

The glove should be peeled away so it turns inside out.

Holding the removed glove in the gloved hand, take off off the second glove by sliding the ungloved fingers under the glove and peel it off so that too turns inside out.

Leave the first glove inside the second and throw both away; then wash your hands “immediately”.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - FEBRUARY 27: A man wears a medical mask as a precaution against coronavirus after Pakistan Health Minister Zafar Mirza announced that the first case of coronavirus was seen in the country, in Islamabad, Pakistan on February 27, 2020. (Photo by Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A man is pictured wearing a mask in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 27 February. (Getty Images)

What is the coronavirus Covid-19?

Covid-19 is one of seven strains of the coronavirus class that are known to infect humans.

Others range from the mild common cold to Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers), which killed 858 during its 2012 outbreak.

Pneumonia can come about when a respiratory infection causes the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs to become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus.

The lungs then struggle to draw in air, resulting in reduced oxygen in the bloodstream.

“Without treatment the end is inevitable,” said the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

“Deaths occurs because of asphyxiation.”

While no one can say for sure where the virus came from, bats seem most likely.

The nocturnal creatures are thought to have been behind Sars and Mers.

Scientists from Peking University in Beijing suggested snakes may have been the “intermediate host” for Covid-19.

A team from South China Agricultural University later found it could have “jumped” from bats to humans via pangolins.

Covid-19 has no specific treatment, with care being “supportive” while a patient’s immune system works to fight off the virus.