Visiting ‘just one friend’ could undo goal of social distancing, UW researchers say

SEATTLE — Researchers at the University of Washington say visiting just one friend during the coronavirus pandemic could undo the goal of social distancing.

With Washington state already weeks into its social distancing guidelines, many people are asking what the harm could be of visiting someone?

A team led by Steven Goodreau, a UW professor of anthropology, and Martina Morris, a UW professor emerita of sociology and statistics, launched a website on April 3 in an attempt to answer that question.

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The research team began by visualizing how effective social distancing measures are on a hypothetical community of 200 households. Researchers were then able to adjust the social connections in the community to show the effects of social distancing.

Here’s the community without social distancing:

The green dots represent a household while the gray lines between each household are meant to sow social connections that could spread the coronavirus -- like close contact among people.

According to the research team, each household has an average of 15 connections to other households.

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“With no social distancing, social connections ensure that every household is directly or indirectly connected with every other household in the community, creating one giant cluster,” the researchers said.

Here’s the community after social distancing:

Most households are isolated with social distancing measures in place. The households in blue include a person with an essential job.

About 10 percent of the households have an essential job. Researchers said they generate social connections that could easily spread the virus.

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The researchers said the largest cluster created by these connections includes just 26 percent of households.

“For the vast majority of households, there is no social connection to potentially expose them to the COVID-19 virus,” the researchers said.

Here’s the community if each household can visit “just one friend”:

If each household establishes one social connection with another household, 71 percent become reconnected in a single, large cluster.

A single case of coronavirus in one of the households then has the direct or indirect social connections needed to spread to almost 75 percent of the families in the community, the researchers said.

“We purposefully keep this quite simple to get the basic idea across to people,” Morris said. “It shows why connections can spread more than we realize, and much more than our instincts might tell us.”

The website also shows additional scenarios based on an increasing number of social connections per household.

For example, a simulation based on an average of two social connections reconnects more than 90 percent of the households in the community, the researchers said.

“What we show is that you don’t need superspreaders to create network connectivity for transmission; visiting just one friend is equally effective for connecting a community into one large cluster,” Morris said.

As the curve flattens here in Washington -- especially with the beautiful weather -- people are starting to wonder if they can visit a friend. How about just one best friend?

Greenlake Park was packed with joggers and people walking, even some people in groups on Tuesday.

A few days ago, KIRO7 talked with two friends at another park.

“We thought it would be nice to meet up and catch up at a park, it’s a beautiful day,” one visitor said. “We thought it would be nice to meet up but at a safe social distance,” she said.

“People often start out planning to follow the rules. And then the next thing you know, you have a glass of wine then you’re three feet apart,” said Goodreau. “It’s so easy to go down the slippery slope,” he said in a Zoom call on Tuesday.

Seattle & King County Public Health in a phone briefing Tuesday that the curve here is flattening, but it's still going up. And it’s not yet time to relax social distancing.

“It should be very clear to everyone that we are in no way ready at this point,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the county’s public health officer.

Duchin said however, we should start thinking about how to reintegrate. But no matter what, he says it will need to be gradual.

“It’s going to be a very slow and frustrating practice for many because these distancing measures are quite difficult. And unfortunately, the next year is probably going to be a very challenging year for all of us,” Duchin said.