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6 social distancing mistakes that may be putting you at risk for COVID-19

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceApril 27, 2020

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We’re now seven weeks into the pandemic and while it’s still very real and very threatening, the suddenness of it all has subsided. Forced business closures, seeing people walking down the street wearing masks, Zoom happy hour invites… They were all surprising at first, but now, are just part of life.

Psychological science researchers at Princeton University and the University of Toronto say that it’s this very fact, that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer new, that could lead to some pitfalls of judgement that could reverse the progress we’ve made thus far in flattening the curve—especially as states like Georgia start to reopen their economies in the coming days and weeks. “Strategies for reducing transmission have included repeated hand washing, physical distancing, and self-isolation. These preventive strategies are immediately available, highly affordable, and distinctly effective. However, a major challenge is the need to maintain adherence,” reads the study, which was published last week in The Lancet Public Health.

Outlined here are six social distancing mistakes that we all should be extra conscious of now that we’re no longer in the beginning days of COVID-19

1. normalization

Researchers point out that fear of the unknown is a common driver for people to take action. In the early days of COVID-19, when little was known about the virus, its mysteriousness prompted people to take protective measures seriously. But living with the virus over the span of several weeks can normalize it and make people more lax about doing things like washing their hands or not going out except for essentials, the researchers say.

The key to avoiding this mistake, the study says, is to act as if you are just learning about the virus. “Repeated creative reminders linked to the evolving situation are important to avoid complacency,” the study reads. In the words of Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter: constant vigilance.

2. overlooking everyday hazards

The COVID-19 crisis has everyone’s attention right now, and so naturally people are hyper-focused on mitigating their risk of exposure to the virus. But over-focusing on one potential hazard may cause people to neglect other everyday basics that keep them healthy. “Ongoing sleep, regular exercise, and human companionship all merit continued attention, which is contrary to an overwhelming sense that all else can wait,” the study authors write.

It might seem like a lot to juggle, but there are definitely ways to balance your normal health needs while ensuring that you have minimal exposure to COVID-19—think indoor workouts, regular phone calls or video chats with loved ones to maintain social connections, and meditation, amongst others.

3. focusing on physical health, but neglecting emotional health

To that end, if you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself from COVID-19, that’s amazing. But social distancing isn’t easy! Researchers say it’s important to consider mental and emotional health, too. Self care is more important now than ever—and so is staying connected (virtually) to those you love. Taking care of your mental health can help make adhering to proper social distancing protocols easier, too.

4. believing the precautions you’re taking aren’t working

There’s a science-backed reason researchers say you’ll see people being more lax about wearing mask and social distancing than a month ago: When you don’t get any proof that something is working, it can make you less likely to stick with it.

“COVID-19 is unsettling because of the long incubation period,” write the study authors, “including a protracted wait between implementing an intervention and finding out results.” Translation: Since it takes up to 14 days for an infected person to show symptoms, it takes at least that amount of time (if not longer) to know if something is “working” or not. But for people who have been stuck in their homes for weeks, wearing masks, and religiously washing their hands, seeing the infection rate in the U.S. continue to climb might make it feel like those precautions aren’t working at all. But that’s not true.

“Authorities should urge caution against acting on daily epidemic reports because random volatility might be mistaken for a real trend,” the study reads. In other words: Take the daily reports with a grain of salt, and focus on your own behaviors—even if you’re skeptical about whether they’re helping or not.

5. giving into the desire for life to go back to ‘Normal’

Does it suck not being able to go to your favorite yoga studio or get your nails done? One-hundred percent. That’s normal, say the researchers. “Human behavior is driven by a strong aversion to losses and a desire to maintain the status quo, which is an impulse that favors recouping losses rather than seizing options that lead to superior outcomes,” the study authors write. But that desire for the “status quo” can be so strong that people dismiss the rules altogether. (Ahem, people in Southern California who went to the beach this past weekend despite stay-at-home orders.)

But just because we want life to go back to normal doesn’t mean that it is normal, nor should it be that way. The researchers suggest that lawmakers and public health officials should emphasize future gains to help people see past the “status quo” and understand the benefit of social distancing and other related measures required to combat the coronavirus.

6. acting on social norms

Simple things like hugging a friend you run into at the grocery store or standing close to your neighbor when you’re both out walking your dogs are habits that are hard to break; hard to even remember sometimes. That’s kind of how we’re hard-wired  as humans. “Human behavior is heavily influenced by deeply ingrained societal norms,” write the study authors—so when we have to abandon or change those norms (like not hugging or shaking hands), it can be hard for people to follow through. Their advice is to stay informed, do your best, and again, if you mess up and forget, just move forward without getting too hung up on it.

Staying on top of social distancing—and all the other precautions—for weeks (and months) on end isn’t easy. Now that we’re living in this new normal, it may require being extra conscious of the pitfalls on this list. But it’s worth remembering that we won’t have to live this way forever. Temporary measures will lead to longer lasting safety.

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