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Guest opinion

Kenski: When physical distancing is a necessity: Dealing with coronavirus

The rapid diffusion of the coronavirus has resulted in an A-ha! moment for most people worldwide but not for everyone.

We need to slow the spread by putting physical distance between us and others. Naysayers on social media believe that "social distancing" is unnecessary for them personally or can't be done.

Some have continued to party in crowded places or turned "social distancing" into a playdate vacation for their kids despite the potentially devastating consequences for the vulnerable in our community and the health system overall.

Yet, there are parents all around the country who have practiced physical distancing when it was important for the health of their child.

I am a part of that group. I am the parent of a micropreemie born in 2007 who came home on oxygen after being in the NICU for 109 days.

After reading the research on prematurity and lung development and based on our son's pulmonologist's advice, my husband and I made the decision to distance ourselves from others except when necessary. The pulmonologist told us that keeping our son home would decrease his risks of contracting the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which hospitalizes 75,000 to 125,000 children each year, as much as getting him the synagis shot, a monthly boost of antibodies, would. We did both.

As a university professor, during this time I worked, but I kept my contact with others only to the necessities.

I did not attend academic conferences for two years after my son was born. My husband worked from home. We did not go out and socialize. We declined party invitations and sporting events. For all intents and purposes, we only went out to the store, medical appointments, and my parents' house. My parents followed our household rules about handwashing and distancing if they felt sick.

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Was this choice at times inconvenient? Absolutely. Did we miss out on some things? Yes. But we also kept our son healthy.

We were fortunate because our family understood our decision and accepted the science behind it.

From online preemie community forums, which were an important source of information and social outlet for me, I learned that not all preemie parents had such support from their family and friends. Many relatives and friends took risks around premature infants with their "allergies." Grandparents sometimes chose smoking over not when contact with their grandchild was on the line. Friendships were broken by the refusal to understand why preemie parents chose to distance themselves physically—never mind the research showing that preemie lungs need time to fill out and bronchial tubes to widen, making physical distancing was a prudent move.

For the micropreemie parent, a couple months of physical distancing during cold, flu, and RSV season for the first two years of the child's life plus diligent hygiene throughout the year was a relatively small price to pay to keep our children safe.

And it is heartbreaking when others don't support this path. Temporary physical distance was important for preemie families before coronavirus, and we know that it may be important in the future for some families after coronavirus is long gone.

But physical separation in this day and age doesn't have to mean a complete cut off from social interaction.

The decision to create social distance is about physical space, not a severance of interpersonal contact. When my family chose the path of physical distancing, people were not widely proficient in online technology, and social media were not a fraction as active and accessible as they are today.

While socializing through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Hangouts, Zoom, FaceTime, IM, and the old-fashioned telephone is not a completely satisfying replacement for face-to-face interaction, social media will help us continue to socialize and celebrate our connectedness from several feet apart for this momentary spot in time.

Rather than think about "socially distancing" ourselves, we should reframe our current situation as one of "physical distancing."

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It will not be forever. A few weeks or a few months is worth the sacrifice to help our communities be able to handle the onslaught of COVID-19 patients better than they otherwise would. It will be long enough to flatten the curve, which will be beneficial for us all.

Kate Kenski is a professor of Communication and Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona where she teaches political communication, public opinion, and research methods.

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