Amid the clamor, panic and ever-changing news of closures and COVID-19 cases, one message has emerged with increasing force: Social distancing is the key to slowing the pandemic.
“The one thing we can do is limit the spread with social distancing measures,” Gov. Mark Gordon said Monday. “It is absolutely critical that we do whatever we can to social distance when possible. This means putting at least six feet of space between you and others.”
But humans are creatures of habit, and it’s proven difficult for many to completely abandon their routines — particularly for those who don’t feel ill or who don’t have underlying health risks. After all, some may wonder, what’s the harm of going on one little outing?
Kim Deti, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Health, has an answer to that.
“Anyone of any age can get sick with this disease and faces a chance of hospitalization,” Deti wrote to WyoFile. “Staying away from others as much as possible helps protect ourselves, our families and the members of our communities who are most vulnerable to this illness.”
This means maintaining a distance of six feet from people outside your immediate family, working from home if possible, refraining from social obligations and limiting errands. The goal is to slow the spread to avoid overloading the state’s healthcare system, she wrote.
“This matters for all of us because mothers will still be having babies and people will still have accidents and heart attacks,” Deti wrote. “We need access to healthcare to continue.”
For those who feel ill or suspect they have been exposed to someone who is infected, the message is simple, said Mike Jones, public information officer for the Fremont County Incident Management Team.
“Go home. Don’t go anywhere, don’t be around groups of people. Just stay at home,” Jones said.
Amy Surdam, who runs Stitches Acute Care Center in Laramie, Cheyenne and Wellington, Colorado, has seen firsthand how important social distancing is and how some people aren’t adhering to the measure effectively. She took a break from seeing patients Tuesday to talk about it with WyoFile.
WyoFile: What is the main thing you think people do not understand, or have misunderstood, about social distancing?
Amy Surdham: The main thing maybe is that it doesn’t apply to them. They think ‘I’m not sick or I’m just going to run into the store to get a battery or I have to still work in this cubicle next to somebody.’ So maybe there’s exceptions to the rules for them. But when we have a mass amount of people making their own exceptions, we don’t have social distancing.
WF: So what I understand is that social distancing requires sacrifices. We have to change habits that are very ingrained for this larger purpose, and it’s not easy. Why is that tough for people?
AS: It’s hard for people to absorb, it’s hard for them to apply to their own lives. And we have a lot of people who don’t think it’s necessary in general.
As this disease or infection progresses, we’ll have a better understanding of that with time. When people start having more close contacts who are hospitalized — when we have the bad outcomes is when people are really going to grasp it.
What I’m seeing is this massive increase in cough, fever or shortness of breath. I’m seeing younger patients who are very sick. These are people who were infected a week ago. A week from now, it’s going to be so much worse if people don’t shut down. The longer we don’t social distance, the longer we’re going to have to social distance.
WF: What are tips for people when it comes to maintaining mental health during this time of isolation? Should people for example go outside?
AS: I hope people can somehow find a way to embrace the gift of time that they are getting right now by being fully present with their family. Which is really hard, because we’re all on this social media obsession. Shut that down and do some things on your list, reading, exercising, getting outside and walking. Learn a new skill. Take a nap. Get rest. Try to find the positive and the silver lining in this horrific thing we’re going through. Finding the joy and the little things will help people get through this.
WF: When do you recommend people self-isolate or self-quarantine?
AS: My personal philosophy right now is that everyone should be self-isolated and self-quarantined. We need to kind of create this … fad. If we all self-isolate then other people will do it as well.
I think it should be happening now. I think it should have been happening a week ago. I think the time is now, we should all be not just social distancing but self-quarantining at this point. That’s an extreme philosophy I know, but we have to have extreme measures to get on top of this.
Yesterday at our clinic in Cheyenne we were so incredibly overwhelmed and overloaded. It’s really hard … I don’t want to do this for months and months and months and months. Already the backlog is starting to occur and it’s just going to get so much worse. The only way we can make this better is if we stop this virus. The only way we can do that is first with a vaccine … which is months away. The other is to stop the virus. The only way we’ll do that is to stop being around each other.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.