How Much Social Distancing Is Enough?

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Hint: This isn’t enough

The CDC has recommended social distancing that keeps six feet between individuals in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Now, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the distance contaminated air can travel may be more than 20 feet.

Researchers found that virus-laden droplets from sneezing could travel up to 26 feet and coughing for up to 19 feet. They can float in the air for minutes or even hours. As these are invisible to the naked eye, it’s clear now more than ever that face masks/coverings are needed anytime you are out in public.

N95 mask

A specialist in fluid dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated: “There is no virtual wall at this 3- to 6-feet distance”, referring to health department suggestions. Not only can aerosolized liquid containing viruses float in an invisible cloud you might walk through and inhale, they can also settle on surfaces you touch (and then touch your face).

 Sneezes are the worst mechanism for spread by far. The World Health Organization reported in 2009 that coughs spray up to 3,000 droplets, with sneezes reaching up to 40,000. If you’re infected, even just talking and exhaling could spread virus.

coughs can spray up to 3,000 droplets, sneezes up to 40,000

Outside, these particles are dispersed due to wind, but without air circulation, they linger. The concentration of viruses in the air indoors is higher, suggesting that airing out your home may be a good idea.

Although a recent study reported that standard surgical masks, used properly, are similar in their level of protection as N95 masks, other studies show a significant difference in protection. For those who are sick, a regular face mask will do to block large droplets. Of course, knowing how to fit a face mask properly is key to achieving the highest level of filter possible.

Because of the shortage of N95 masks, the CDC recommends cloth face coverings in public spaces, especially in grocery stores, pharmacies, and other establishments in outbreak areas. A barrier is certainly necessary in pandemic times, but what do scientists think about using cloth coverings?

One researcher notes that violent exhalation like coughs and sneezes would be deflected to the sides of the mask, which are unlikely to be perfectly sealed. They can, however, greatly reduce the distance that any escaping particles can travel. She added that it was important to realize that cloth masks aren’t necessarily protective for the wearer in preventing inhalation of droplets in the air entering from the sides of the mask. She does mention that cloth coverings are successful in reducing the range of contamination.

Some products are both cloth coverings and have higher level of protection. One of these is the Bioscarf (seen below), which claims N95-like filtration efficacy.

Amy Alton using a bioscarf as a mask.
Nurse Amy demonstrating a Bioscarf as an N-95 mask.

The CDC continues to recommend that commercial surgical face masks and N95 respirators be reserved only for healthcare works and first responders. It’s hard to argue with that, but it also begs the question: If the CDC endorses home care for mild cases of COVID-19, that means someone in the family must be a caregiver; in essence, a medical worker at risk for catching a contagious disease. Don’t they have a right to face masks as well?

Certainly, priority must be given to doctors, nurses, EMTs, and others on the front line, but you may be the front line if a family member gets a mild form of the infection. You need protection as well. Don’t let yourself be shamed just because you were prepared enough to have these in your medical storage before the pandemic began.

Joe Alton MD

Learn more about viral diseases like COVID-19 and pandemic preparedness with a copy of our new book “Alton’s Pandemic Preparedness Handbook”, available at Amazon, or get a signed color copy at

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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