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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Pandemic, social distancing: What does it mean? When will it end?

Get ready for the new normal. The coronavirus outbreak has become a pandemic, and the world is reacting with steps we never imagined. Where and when it stops, nobody knows.

Life is required to change for awhile, even here in Allen County, in a necessary attempt to stem the tide of a world-wide virus that has invaded the U.S. We urge our readers to cooperate with recommended guidelines during this siege on our daily lives while not reacting in panic and irrational behavior.

With President Trump’s address to the nation Wednesday and the ensuing announcements of cancellations and other radical steps to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the U.S. is facing an incredible period in which we are being asked, if not required, to practice “social distancing,” a widely defined term that means avoiding crowds and close or physical contact.

But how close is too close?

Many diseases can be spread by coughing or sneezing respiratory droplets into the air, propelling them from 6-12 feet, depending on the size of the droplets and the force of expulsion. Those droplets can then infect others within that and even larger distances, depending on their size, according to the Boston University School of Public Health.

Understandably, the designation by the World Health Organization of the spread of the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic may seem disturbing.

“A pandemic is when an epidemic spreads between countries,” says David Jones, MD, PhD, a professor of the culture of medicine at Harvard University.

The WHO says COVID-19 is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus, a large family of viruses known to cause respiratory infections, including the MERS and SARS outbreaks in recent years. COVID-19 began in China as an outbreak, then increased to epidemic proportions, meaning more than a normal number of cases of an illness in a community or region. The upgrade to pandemic is because of its “worldwide spread” as a new disease.

The last pandemic was the spread of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in 2009 that killed hundreds of thousands across the world.

But being a pandemic does not mean a virus is deadly. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for older adults and people with existing health problems it may cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

As of the president’s national address Wednesday evening, 38 people had died from the coronavirus in the U.S., while more than 1,300 people had tested positive, far less than Italy, for example, where more than 12,000 people had tested positive and 800 had died.

The new normal there has included the closing of all stores except pharmacies and food markets.

For the U.S. the new normal means college basketball tournaments with no fans attending, the suspension of the NBA season, cancellation of classes at Indiana and Purdue universities, among others, and cancellations of St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Furthermore, President Trump announced the suspension of travel from 26 European nations to the U.S. beginning at midnight today, to last for at least the next month.

So be prepared for more possible cancellations, such as local schools and churches.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued among the most sweeping “guidance,” urging an end to all events involving more than 250 people, and even small gatherings in spaces that don’t allow for “social distancing.”

Indiana doesn’t have the number of cases as some other places. As of Wednesday there were 11 cases confirmed in the state, including one each in Adams and Noble counties, the nearest cases to Allen County.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is working with Vice-President Mike Pence and his COVID-19 task force to consider the next steps in controlling the spread of the virus in our state. But it takes the understanding and cooperation of us all during this time of uncertainty to take necessary precautions. To learn what you can do to keep from being infected, go to the Allen County Department of Health website at https://www.allencountyhealth.com/covid-19.

Whether this lasts for weeks or months, we simply don’t know. But the reality is that things will not be normal for some time to come. Let’s react with common sense and cooperation, not only for our own benefit, but for the good of others as well.

As the president said in his prime-time address, “We are all in this together.”