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What is social distancing? Can we visit older relatives with the kids? Why are the schools still open? We have the answers from the experts to all your coronavirus questions.
Rae Johnston

23 Mar 2020 - 3:33 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 1:35 PM

As the Coronavirus pandemic dominates the news, we are still learning new information about what it is, how it spreads, and what we can do to protect ourselves. With misinformation to the latest science shared in equal measure on social media, it's difficult to tell the difference.

So we've gathered together the latest answers to your questions from the experts in disease control and public health to separate fact from fiction.

Here is everything you need to know about social distancing and self-isolation.

What does social distancing look like?

The Federal Government is advising social distancing as one way to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

Social distancing is possible in many ways:

  • Shopping online where possible to limit visits to the shops.

  • Limiting travel outside the home to essential trips only.

  • Limiting the number of household members going along on essential trips.

  • Stay at home if you are sick.

  • Hold meetings via video conferencing or phone call.


What are the latest government-mandated guidelines for social distancing?

These are changing almost daily at this point, but as of Monday, 23 March, the following rules apply:

  • Registered and licensed clubs, licensed premises in hotels and pubs, entertainment venues and cinemas, casinos and nightclubs are closed.

  • Restaurants and cafes are restricted to takeaway only.

  • Indoor sporting venues and places of worship are closed.

  • Indoor "essential" gatherings (like funerals) will need to allow a four square metre area per person to allow for social distancing.

  • Schools remain open at this stage; however Victorian and ACT school will close tomorrow, and NSW parents have been urged to keep children home.

  • Supermarkets and bottle shops remain open, as do takeaway and home delivery services.  


What is self-isolation?

If you have COVID-19, have been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or arrived in Australia after midnight on 15 March 2020 you will need to self-isolate for 14 days. You must stay at home, have someone else bring you any essentials you need and not let anyone who doesn't normally live with you inside. 

If you need to go to the hospital or doctor (the only time you should leave your home), you need to wear a mask. 

You can go in your backyard if you have one, but if you are in an apartment, you should wear a mask while on the balcony. 


How do I look after my mental health while in self-isolation?

Make sure you keep in touch with family and friends - social media, video calling, or just picking up the phone are essential. Eating the best you can, and incorporating exercise into your daily routine is vital. YouTube is an excellent resource for yoga and bodyweight exercises. 

Stay in touch with your medical professionals. 


Will social distancing measures allow society to eradicate COVID-19? 

Associate Professor Ying Zhang, from the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, does not believe social distancing alone can work.

"It must be complemented with other government measures to avoid people gathering and therefore reduce the chance to get infected," said Associate Professor Zhang.

"Also, social distancing is hard to practice as behaviour changes in humans take time. We need herd immunisation but should take more active actions to achieve it, like vaccination."

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Professor Bruce Thompson, Dean of Health at Swinburne University agrees that social distancing "will not eradicate the virus by itself" - and until we have a vaccine, it will be challenging to get the effect of herd immunity.

"It is not possible just to allow the virus to spread as the health consequences are far too great. The virus will always exist similar to other major viruses; however, it will be controlled with appropriate vaccination."


Is it okay to go bushwalking/hiking?

Professor Gerry Fitzgerald, a public health expert from Queensland University of Technology, said bushwalking alone, or in the company of your immediate contact should not increase risk "provided you don't stop at the coffee shop on the way home."

Dr Joel Miller, an applied mathematics lecturer from La Trobe University with expertise in modelling infectious disease spread agreed: "as long as you are not in close contact with others." 


If you and your family are put into isolation, are you provided with masks?

Professor Fitzgerald said you do not need to wear masks if you are in self-isolation because you are at risk of, have been in contact with someone with the disease, but do not have it yourself at present.

"At present in Queensland, all patients diagnosed with the disease are being admitted to hospital," said Professor Fitzgerald, "but this will not be possible if we have substantial community transmission of the disease."

"At that stage, patients with mild symptoms will be sent home to isolate, and this is occurring in other states now."

The freely available surgical masks are only useful to prevent the spread of the disease from someone who is infected, according to Professor Fitzgerald.

"The patient with the infection should wear a mask to reduce the number of droplets containing viruses that are expelled into the atmosphere." 


If we have chronic illness and weak immune systems, should we just self-isolate with our families as soon as we can?

"The current recommendation is that people who are at increased risk from this disease because they are elderly or have chronic diseases or are immunocompromised should start to take precautions," said Professor Fitzgerald, "That includes isolation."

"The risk is very low at present, but this could change any day." 


Should schools close given the situation is getting worse?

Professor Thompson said at this stage, there is no evidence to suggest that schools should close, "hence the reason why the Chief Medical Officer has not recommended it and the government hasn't done it.”

"However, this is a rapidly changing story," Professor Thompson said.

Professor Fitzgerald said the public health position on this is that schools should not close at this time for several reasons.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has warned: "longer closures may result in more students congregating outside of school, which will increase risk to older adults."

Professor Fitzgerald points to researchers at the Imperial College London, who have looked at the impact of various public interventions based on data from Hubei and their previous work with Influenza. They have concluded that while school closure may help with social distancing, it is not enough in itself to break the transmission of the virus from person to person.

"Closing schools has consequences as parents need to stay home from work; some of whom will be essential workers including health workers," said Professor Fitzgerald. "Or the kids will either end up accumulating in shopping malls or with grandparents who are at particular risk from this disease."

"Should this disease break out into the community, then it may last months, and prolonged closure of schools may have significant impacts onto the children and their education."

Professor Fitzgerald said the situation is "very fluid" and if this does break out further into the community then "much more aggressive social distancing measures will need to be taken" - including closing schools.


What is the worth in temperature-checking kids at school to make sure they're not unwell? Is it even practical?

"I think it would be better to ask parents to keep unwell kids at home rather than checking temperatures at school," said Associate Professor Ying Zhang. "However, if kids are still attending school, we should provide extra protection through a higher standard of personal hygiene for both teachers and students, to ensure their health. Kids can get pretty sick even though the mortality rate for this age group is very low."

Professor Thompson said it is not only practical, but it also is "quite easy to do and has been done before".

Professor Fitzgerald said random testing of temperatures is widespread now, but the evidence is limited that it is a useful means of detecting cases.

"It is unlikely to be a useful measure to detect cases," he said, "but may be a way of reassuring parents and teachers."


Is it safe for my child to visit older family members?

Professor Thompson said there is no simple answer to this question.

"It depends on how old the grandparents are, their mobilities," said Professor Thompson. "Again, this is a risk issue; we are trying to limit the risk." 

"Older people are more susceptible to the virus, so we need to look after them, and this is one way of doing that."

Dr Miller said to "definitely avoid contact with elderly if you or your children have any signs of illness. The symptoms may be quite mild."

Professor Fitzgerald said the risk remains low at present, "provided no one has been travelling overseas or in close contact with someone who has or with some who has been diagnosed with the disease."


If you have any questions about coronavirus, email rae.johnston@sbs.com.au and we'll get them answered by the experts, thanks to Scimex. 

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