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How To Do Social Distancing Correctly, And Other Listener Questions Answered

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the most unsettling aspects of the coronavirus is that there are so many unknowns, starting with the big one - when will the pandemic end? Well, there are some questions that can be answered, and NPR's Allison Aubrey is back to do just that.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So a few weeks ago, you fielded questions from listeners. And this time around, what we thought we would do is gather questions from our own staff here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm talking producers, editors on this show. We've all got some of the same concerns about our health and well-being that our listeners do. So...

AUBREY: Absolutely.

CHANG: I just want to start with this whole social distancing thing. This is the thing, the action that everyone from President Trump on down to local officials - that's what they are all urging all Americans to do right now.

AUBREY: That's right.

CHANG: And today Dr. Deborah Birx, who's coordinating the White House response to coronavirus - she said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBORAH BIRX: Every single generation has a role to play. We're asking our older generation to stay in their homes. We're asking the younger generations to stop going out in public places, to bars and restaurants and spreading asymptomatic virus onto countertops and knobs.

CHANG: I mean, you know, one person was asking, look; we get the importance of social distancing absolutely, but is there any way to responsibly see your friends or family? Or should we all truly be isolated for a good amount of time?

AUBREY: You know, social distancing does not mean absolute isolation, right? We still have to go to the grocery store. Right now...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...We're being told, don't gather in groups of 10 or more. If you live alone, yeah, this isolation could be very difficult. And I don't think anyone is going to tell you you can't have one or two people over. The key is do what we know works to help prevent the spread of this, and that is the simple stuff you keep hearing. It is wash your hands, stop touching your face, clean your surfaces and keep your distance. Look; it is possible for adults to gather, two or three, and stay six feet apart - harder for children.

CHANG: Right.

AUBREY: And then we should say go outside, right? I mean, use the great outdoors. It is very possible to take a walk where you're all six feet apart, to take a hike, to take a bike ride.

CHANG: I love that idea. OK, still, there are times we have to remain indoors, and we have a lot of colleagues working from home because their children's schools are closed. I know that you have children at home, Allison. Does social distancing mean no more play dates for a while now?

AUBREY: You know, I think to answer this question, it is really important for everyone to understand the role that children could be playing in spreading this virus. There is not perfect information right now, but the data coming from China tell us a lot. In China, about 13% of the kids who were confirmed to have the coronavirus - they had no symptoms at all. They were asymptomatic. Many, many others get the virus but have only mild symptoms.

So look; we know kids get the virus. This virus is very contagious. They can spread it. What I'm hearing from a lot of the pediatricians that I speak to is, better off to cancel all the play dates. Here's Jenny Redecky. She's a pediatrician at the University of Michigan. She says, look; at her hospital, they are preparing for a possible surge of patients. They're ready, but they'll be able to do their job better if there are just fewer people who get sick.

JENNY REDECKY: My guidance right now to family is, as much as possible, do not have your kids in other people's houses. Do not have other people's kids in your house.

AUBREY: So this may seem draconian, but it really is the ask right now. And, of course, this is complicated because what if - right? - you have to go to work? What if you can't work at home? These are all really delicate questions right now, and there aren't great solutions all the time.

CHANG: Well, OK. So some of our staff right now - they're living with roommates, others obviously with family members of all ages. And people want to know, if they're still having to go into work - maybe even having to travel for their job - what's the best way to sanitize once they get back home in order to avoid infecting everyone else at home?

AUBREY: Well, you know, if you've got roommates and you've got shared surfaces and if you've got somebody going out into the world and coming back, whether that's to get groceries or to go to the office, then they can bring something back with them. So the first thing - and this is something we've been told a million times during this - wash your hands.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: When it comes to surfaces, yes, it's really important to disinfect them. So you can actually do a lot to, you know, sanitize your own home. You need to wipe down with wipes. If you don't have wipes, it's pretty easy to make your own cleaning solution. You take a little bleach. There are specific recommendations on the CDC website. But yes, wipe down those surfaces. Wipe down your phone, which you can think of as your third hand right now. Our phone...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Goes everywhere with us, right? And just be mindful of that.

CHANG: So this question has popped up in a lot of people's minds because people are already getting antsy and restless staying at home and watching tons and tons of movies. How long does all this social distancing last to accomplish its goals?

AUBREY: Every expert I am speaking to is saying, I wish we knew.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: We just don't have a perfect answer. When the CDC announced the guidance to cancel or postpone all events where 50 or more people would gather, they indicated this would be for the next eight weeks, so that's until about mid-May. But I would also say that the message coming from the White House and from many public health officials is that the next 14 days are really, really critical, and that is because there is an assumption that if everybody does the right thing right now, we can start to slow the spread.

So maybe think about it in baby steps. I mean, my mother always told me, inch by inch, life's a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard. If we start thinking about, oh, my God; what if we're still social distancing two months from now, we really will go insane. So focus on hunkering down right now for the next 14 days, and then we'll take it from there.

CHANG: All right. That still leaves us with questions about how to just get on with everyday life, including how are you going to eat. So several colleagues asked, is it OK to go to the grocery store? Bars and restaurants are closed in a lot of places. Is it OK to get takeout? And what about food delivery services? I mean, speaking for myself, I've been ordering a ton of lunch and dinner deliveries both at work and at home. Is that even a good idea?

AUBREY: You know, I think it's important to point out that when people are told not to go to bars and restaurants, this is to enforce social distancing, right? So I think the main thing to think about is just to think about these personal interactions when you're getting food delivered, right? I mean, the concern would be more about the delivery itself, the box or the plastic container. Is the person who's delivering that food - are they practicing good hand-washing?

CHANG: Right.

AUBREY: Are they potentially infected? We do know that, you know, contaminated surfaces could play a role here, and we're all being asked to pull out all the stops and be as cautious as possible. So under these conditions, you know, think about it that way.

CHANG: So much stuff to think about. Do you have...

AUBREY: Yeah, I know.

CHANG: ...Any last words of advice for our listeners as we enter this strange time of a socially distant lifestyle?

AUBREY: You know, life as we know it has ground to a halt. But we're still being asked to work and take care of our children, and it's very uncharted territory for all of us. We spent so much of our days rushing around. We're busy, busy, busy from ballet to, you know, baseball to soccer. And now we're not doing any of that. So this is an opportunity to hang out and try to be with each other and try to be good to each other, maybe get to know each other just a little bit better. I don't know. I am stretching here to look for upsides of this. It's difficult. There has to be some comfort in thinking that, you know, it can't go on forever.

CHANG: That is Allison Aubrey of NPR's Science Desk. Thank you so much again for answering all of our questions. I'm sure there will be more.

AUBREY: Thank you so much. I'm glad I could help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODY'S ECHO CHAMBER SONG, "SOME TIME ALONE, ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.