Breaking down buzzwords: Distancing during COVID-19

It goes without saying that times are incredibly difficult at present. Contributing to this is the complexity of the language around this pandemic.

Navigating new buzzwords and phrases can be confusing, and it is important that we overcome this obstacle to assure that we all are able to correctly interpret the constant information coming our way. In doing so, we can confidently and effectively respond to do our part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 — or, since we’re talking buzzwords, to “flatten the curve.”

The following is a breakdown of the different ways that we can maintain space from others to limit transmission of this virus.

Social distancing

On the light end of the spectrum, we have perhaps the most widely used term of all — “social distancing.” Interestingly, this refers to simply minimizing physical interactions with others. More specifically, it means avoiding unnecessary large gatherings (10 or more people, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as well as maintaining a physical distance of six feet or more when you absolutely need to be in public.

You’ll note the repeated use of the word “physical.” What is really vital here is not avoiding social interactions, but rather in-person contact. All that “social distance” truly looks to accomplish is a decrease in opportunities for sickness to spread.

By all means, you can still call your friends and family if you are able. Indeed, with many facing an increased amount of downtime, this is as good a time as ever to catch up remotely with those you care about.

Quarantine and isolation

Here we have two phrases that may be considered more official. Nonetheless, just like social distancing, “quarantine” and “isolation” have the same goal of preventing infectious spread.

They simply work toward this goal to a greater extent. In the case of both quarantine and isolation, people are separated and cut off from physical interactions (i.e., no outings whatsoever — unlike social distancing) until the risk of spread has run its course (about 14 days). The primary distinction between quarantine and isolation, however, is who they are intended for.

Whereas isolation should be practiced by all those who are already sick and/or tested positive for COVID-19, quarantine casts a wider net. In the present situation, this includes all those without symptoms who have had confirmed interactions with someone who has the virus, as well as those who have been in environments that are considered “high-risk” for transmission (e.g., traveling from/through heavily impacted areas — including here in New York).

In other words, we isolate those who are already sick from those who are healthy. By contrast, we proactively quarantine those who are healthy but may become sick. In either event, the risk of spreading the virus to more healthy people is mitigated.

Notably, although quarantines can be mandated by law, thus far, officials have largely enacted only measures such as shelter-in-place mandates that increase social distancing. Thus, the onus is currently on us to recognize our own risk and respond appropriately.

This is of especially high importance as COVID-19 has been shown to often manifest asymptomatically. If you may have been at risk to acquire this virus, please quarantine for 14 days while monitoring for symptoms. Otherwise, maintain your physical space while keeping up with loved ones from a distance.

Armed with proper understanding and action, we can each help flatten the curve and fight this pandemic.


For over 25 years, Community Caregivers has helped those in local communities who may require a little assistance while they remain in their homes and live independently with dignity. Through a network of dedicated staff and volunteers, clients receive reassurance calls; friendly visits; and help with transportation, shopping, and light chores. Caregivers are also provided support through education and respite visits. Community Caregivers is always seeking new volunteers and clients. For more information, visit or call 518-456-2898.

Editor’s note: Aaron Garcia is a student at Albany Medical College.