COVID-19 Terms: The Difference Between Social Distancing, Physical Distancing & More

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jan 9, 2021 8:08:07 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still facing a barrage of near-constant information — and a ton of misinformation. Be it the advice of medical experts or the guidelines being set forth by your local and federal government officials, it all feels important to take in, which can overwhelm even the most detail-oriented individuals among us.

However, if we want to fully understand our role in keeping ourselves and our communities safe, it’s important to get the terminology right. Although some brush off word choice as "just semantics," correctly defining terms like "social distancing" and "self-isolating" matters. After all, a lack of specificity can lead to misinformation — and that inaccuracy can breed panic. And that's where our quick guide to some of the most common pandemic-related terms comes in handy.

Social Distancing & Physical Distancing

Amid the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for "community mitigation strategies" — essentially, ways to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). One of the most effective ways to thwart the proliferation of the virus is to practice "social distancing," but, nearly a year into the pandemic, the conversation has shifted a bit to include the phrase "physical distancing" as well. So, how are these terms — and practices — different from one another?

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Photo Courtesy: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Epidemiologists use the term social distancing to refer to the conscious effort taken by individuals to reduce close contact between themselves and others, which will prevent community transmission of the virus. That entails staying home and, as much as possible, avoiding public spaces so that you don’t become a vector for the virus — a.k.a. an asymptomatic carrier who, unknowingly, passes the virus on to others. Even if you feel well, social distancing helps protect more vulnerable folks in our communities, such as those who are elderly, immunosuppressed or immunocompromised.

In practice, social distancing means keeping a safe space between yourself and other individuals who do not share your household. In both indoor and outdoor spaces, that safe distance is about 6 feet. By putting social distancing into practice — and staying away from groups of other people — you put the health and safety of others before your desire to be social, which can severely curb the number of COVID-19 cases and ensure hospitals and other facilities aren’t overwhelmed.

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So, where does physical distancing come in? In essence, physical distancing and social distancing are the same practice — and the main difference stems from the kind of message the diction is sending. "Rather than sounding like you have to socially separate from your family and friends, ‘physical distancing’ simplifies the concept with the emphasis on keeping 6 feet away from others,” psychologist Dr. Shahida Fareed told Geisinger. While it may seem like a small difference, the seemingly interchangeable terms do have different connotations and it's important to be mindful of them, especially since the pandemic has proved to be a very isolating time — a time that's impacted folks' mental health in an unprecedented way.

Self-Monitoring & Self-Quarantining

If you have potentially come into contact with a carrier, you should practice self-monitoring, which includes watching for signs of the virus — cough, shortness of breath — and checking your temperature. NPR provides a great hypothetical example: Let’s say you attended a large conference recently. Well, Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, explains that if "[t]he person speaking at the podium was later diagnosed, and you were in the audience — you’re not considered at risk." Despite the low risk of transmission, you’d still monitor your health and check for symptoms, just in case.

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Distancing Terms
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However, Dr. Plescia is quick to point out that in this hypothetical scenario, if you "had a long conversation [with that person] or that person coughed or sneezed on you… [you] would then self-quarantine." That means self-quarantine is a step up from the more cautious self-monitoring scenario. In this case, you’ve had direct contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and are waiting to see if you develop symptoms. If you’re self-quarantining, you should stay home and avoid other people as much as possible for a 14-day period. Living with others? Try and limit that contact by sleeping in a separate room (if possible) and sanitizing shared spaces and items as frequently as possible.

Self-Isolation, Shelter-in-Place & Quarantine

The next term on our list is self-isolation. In this scenario, you have tested positive for the virus and must take even more precautions than you would when self-quarantining. Whether at home or in a hospital, you should essentially eliminate contact with others. If you have to travel between home and a treatment center, wearing a mask is crucial to protect others from the virus-containing droplets you’re liable to spread.

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Shanghai Quarantine
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As officials continue to implement methods to curb the risk of transmission, a few other terms may come into play — as they have in the past few months to varying degrees. For example, on March 16, officials in California’s Bay Area — which includes San Francisco and Oakland — issued a shelter-in-place decree, meaning regardless of your status, you should stay home. In the lead up to the 2020 winter holiday season, the Bay Area reinstated strict shelter-in-place orders, extending them "indefinitely." Residents are allowed to get some fresh air outside (preferably near their homes and away from others), and they can still buy groceries, pick up prescriptions and travel to the doctor, but, otherwise, they should be home.

A step up from this scenario would be a quarantine (or lockdown) wherein officials would place a city, county or state on lockdown, meaning travel in and out of the area would be strictly prohibited. Although the United States hasn't implemented strict lockdowns as of yet, these methods have proved immensely successful for countries like New Zealand and Australia, which are relatively COVID-free. In particular, New Zealand hasn't had an instance of community transmission of the novel coronavirus since November 18, 2020.

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While it's unclear how the federal government of the United States — or the country's local governments — will handle pandemic safety going forward, it's important that we all continue to do our part. Yes, it's fatiguing and challenging, but, even if you feel you aren't at risk, taking the proper precautions — and understanding the difference between these terms — can help you better protect your household and your community from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.