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Editor's Comment

Social Distancing—What Would It Mean for It to Work?

  • 1Deputy Editor, JAMA Health Forum
  • 2Department of Health Policy, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is the subject of global fascination and fear. It is driving us to maintain social distance from each other while representing an historic experience that will be shared by most of the people alive on the planet in 2020. What we remember about the experience, however, will be shaped by the social context in which we live—and, in turn, that social context will shape the path of the disease through our communities.

Gostin and Wiley recently wrote in JAMA about the public health powers governments have to close schools and businesses, restrict travel, and impose stay-at-home orders.1 These powers are now being summed up under the term “social distancing,” but they are being implemented differently across the US and around the world. The Kaiser Family Foundation is tracking the social distancing actions taken in different US states. They range from limitations on large gatherings to stay-at-home policies to quarantines for travelers. Some states have backed actions with enforcement or extensive public messaging, while others have chosen a less active stance. Internationally, the range of social distancing policies has been larger and has included lockdowns and cell phone tracking of those near infected individuals. These measures have reflected not only the extent of the disease but also the ability and willingness of leaders to implement these measures within their jurisdictions.

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