Social Distancing & Human Immunity

by Scientific Editorial Board on November 29, 2020


For centuries, people have used containment strategies (quarantine, border controls, contact tracing and surveillance) to limit the spread of communicable disease.

An organized community response to infection is most critical in the absence of pharmaceutical treatments and cures, but varying levels of political, ethical and socioeconomic controversy have long accompanied these practices. Management of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPI) requires a careful balance between public and individual welfare. 

It’s important to recognize that NPI is unlikely to change a population’s susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2, or any other microbe, for that matter. That means it’s not a long-term solution to the underlying problem. But it can help. Social distancing can prevent the spread of communicable disease. We know that SARS-CoV-2 spreads rapidly through person-to-person contact. Therefore, limiting human contact will limit the spread of the virus. The primary goals of NPI when it comes to COVID-19 are to alleviate overcrowding in hospitals and borrow time for scientists to develop vaccine and drug candidates. (1)


Physical and Mental Effects


In response to the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials are asking us to do something that does not come naturally to our very social species: Stay away from each other. Such social distancing—avoiding large gatherings and close contact with others—is crucial for slowing the spread of the virus and preventing our health care system from getting overwhelmed. But it won’t be easy.

The coronavirus spreading around the world is calling on us to suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection: seeing our friends, getting together in groups, or touching each other.

Social distancing also tests the human capacity for cooperation, pandemics are an especially demanding test … because we are not just trying to protect people we know, but also people we do not know or even, possibly, care about.

Over long periods of time, social isolation can increase the risk of a variety of health problems, including heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death.


Are certain people or populations more likely to be affected?

People of all ages are susceptible to the ill effects of social isolation and loneliness, Holt-Lunstad says. But a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (of which she was a co-author) highlights some reasons older people may be more susceptible, including the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments like hearing loss that can make it harder to interact.


Can technology help compensate for some of the downsides of social distancing?

Texting, email, and apps like Skype and FaceTime can definitely help people stay in touch. “We are fortunate to live in an era where technology will allow us to see and hear our friends and family, even from a distance. (2)


Types of social distancing

The term ‘social distancing’ refers to efforts that aim, through a variety of means, to decrease or interrupt transmission of COVID-19 in a population (sub-)group by minimizing physical contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals, or between population groups with high rates of transmission and population groups with no or a low level of transmission. There are several different types of social distancing measures and these can be categorised in ‘layers’, in ascending order of scale. Each progressive layer of measures includes all measures from the previous layers.



  • Individual social distancing
  • Isolation of cases
  • Quarantine of contacts
  • Stay-at-home recommendations
  • Social distancing affecting multiple persons
  • Closure of educational institutions
  • Workplace closures
  • Measures for special populations: Measures to limit outside visitors and limit the contact between the inmates/patients in confined settings
  • Mass gathering cancellations
  • Cordon sanitaire/mandatory quarantine of a building or residential area(s) (3)


Is it effective?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is currently spreading easily from person-to-person. When a healthy person comes into contact with respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes of an infected person, they can catch the infection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that "COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee. A fomite is an object or material which is likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture. Therefore, transmission of the infection can be avoided by staying away from other people as well as from touching infected fomites.

Social distancing aims to decrease or interrupt transmission of COVID-19 in a population by minimizing contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals, or between population groups with high rates of transmission and population groups with no or low levels of transmission.

Studies on outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as the flu, suggest that social distancing is an effective way to reduce the number of people infected provided that the measures are thorough and that they are continued for a suitable length of time. Studies on the 1918 influenza epidemic, comparing different states in the USA, demonstrated the benefits of applying social distancing.

A recent, systematic review by Fong et al., (2020) "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.


Difference between Social Distancing and Shielding

Shielding like social distancing is recommended to prevent the spread of infection but is particularly aimed at protecting vulnerable people like the elderly and those with an underlying condition. It involves minimizing interaction by staying at home but also minimizing all non-essential contact with other members of the household. a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimizing interaction between those who are extremely vulnerable and others. This means that those who are extremely vulnerable should not leave their homes, and within their homes should minimize all non-essential contact with other members of their household. (4)


What can help with social distance? 

As social distancing becomes our new “norm” over at least the next several weeks, the pressures may be overwhelming. There are challenges finding childcare and keeping necessities stocked, never mind keeping yourself safe at work and out in the world. And how much disinfectant is enough, anyway? We all need to think about practical coping strategies while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are five to employ today:


  1. Use facts and precautions to manage your fear.

The unknown can be scary and can overwhelm us. Fear can inflate negative thoughts, which leads to unhealthy stress. Ongoing stress releases hormones that get us ready for emergencies, but also severely depress our immune systems. Combat this fear by acting on facts, not misinformation. Look at the statistics and the real numbers of infections being reported by the Centers for Disease Control and local/national officials. You can tackle fear by facing it head-on with facts and smart precautions like handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and social distancing.


  1. Be smart about social and TV time.

Social media platforms can cause incredible anxiety as rumors and misinformation spread on them. Limit time on social media, and don’t instigate hysteria by reposting unvetted information. Limit your children’s exposure to television news. Their perspective is different than adults’, and they will have difficulty processing the facts. Children also notice our emotional state, so try to stay calm and provide facts to help them understand the situation and how everyone can get through this together.


  1. Get some physical exercise.

Exercise your body to help keep your mind in check. In fact, aerobic exercise is as important for your head as it is for your heart. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, provide stimulation and calm, as well as counter depression and dissipate stress. So, take a walk, a run, or even tune in to one of the thousands of free online yoga, meditation or workout videos. Dust off your weight bench and take the laundry off the treadmill. Get on it. Use it.


  1. Help each other.

Social distancing does not mean you shouldn’t seek and give support. The upside to social media is that we truly are more connected than ever before. Find out who needs help and offer it, in a way that keeps everyone safe and cared for. Even with social distancing, you can drop off medicine or supplies to a neighbor or friend. Call your church or check in with your online groups to find out who needs a meal that can be left on their doorstep, or a prescription delivered. And of course, if you bought lots of “bulk extras,” maybe spare a few food or household items for those who weren’t able to stock up. Be creative to ensure our social distancing doesn’t lead to emotional distancing for those most in need.


  1. Limit poor nutritional habits that weaken your immune system.

One habit to curb is eating or drinking more than 100 grams (8 tbsp) of sugar a day. That much sugar reduces your white blood cells’ ability to kill germs by 40%! Also limit your alcohol intake as studies show that three or more alcoholic drinks daily is enough to suppress your immunity. (5)







Related Posts