How social distancing works

There’s a good reason — and math — behind recommendations and regulations to limit interaction with others, especially groups. Here’s a quick explanation:

The more new people you are in close contact with (the CDC recommends staying six feet away, the WHO says three) the more likely you are to get them infected with COVID-19 or they are to get you infected. Even if nobody thinks they are exhibiting symptoms, both health organizations say.

It’s a math equation, says this University of Virginian physics professor, of compounding illness. It’s the dark side of the same concept that shows that starting to invest early in life in a 401K early leads to exponential growth in the value of your investment. In this case, the earlier someone is infected without practicing social distancing, there’s an exponential growth in the number of people who can potentially be infected by this thus-far incurable virus.

If someone does contract COVID-19 and then self-quarantines, it breaks that growth trajectory overall, and reduces the chance that it infects someone with high risk – like an older person, or someone with a compromised immune system.

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 is crucial, because the local health care system has a limit to how many people it can safely treat at any one time, and it has proven devastating if the number of people needing treatment for the virus exceeds that peak capacity.

We could show you a simple graph of why it is important to “flatten the curve” in order to avoid a rush of patients that overwhelm the system. But right meow we could use some levity.

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