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Social distancing is best prevention for coronavirus

Melvin B. Miller

No one alive today has any personal memory of the great 1918 flu pandemic. A deadly influenza virus infected an estimated 500 million people throughout the world from January 1918 to December 1920. That was about one-fourth of the world’s population at the time. It killed more people than the total death toll of World War I. The flu caused the deaths of about 675,000 in the United States.

A century ago there was no vaccine to protect against the virus that caused the disease. The major remedy of medical practitioners and political leaders was the same strategy applied today, to impose social distancing on people to keep ill persons away from others. This could be done only by establishing restrictions on restaurants, theaters, schools, non-essential businesses and all places where people gathered.

According to studies, this policy worked in the flu pandemic to blunt the growth of the upward curve in infections and deaths. But it was also learned that the social distancing had to be continued for a sufficient time to prevent a resurgence of flu infections.

Almost a century ago it was learned that sustained social distancing was required to flatten the growth of the curve of casualties from the infection. Relaxation of the policy too early would revive the growth of the flu infection.

Nowadays, it is much more difficult to maintain social distancing than it was 100 years ago. Airplanes, buses and trolleys enable people to move easily from one environment to another, so social distancing, short of isolation, is not so easily established. People are not always cooperative about being confined to their homes, even after they close their small businesses or are laid off from their jobs.

The stay-home order is disruptive and inconvenient, but short of a new vaccine, social distancing is the only method now available to stop the spread of the pandemic contagion. In some densely populated cities like New York, just going to the store makes you part of a group. But photos of a crowded beach in Miami suggests that everyone is not cooperating with the only presently available strategy to end the pandemic.

Disciplined compliance is needed to win this battle.

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