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Physical distancing and how to avoid the COVID-19 infection

14-minute read

IMPORTANT: If you have severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately and tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival about your recent travel history and any close contact with a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19.


How do I avoid catching COVID-19?

The best way to avoid infection is to avoid contact with someone with COVID-19, practise 'physical distancing' and to not travel overseas at this time.

As with other communicable diseases, people with symptoms should stay at home, except to get medical care, and should avoid using public transport.

Everyone should practise good hand and cough hygiene:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser (e.g. before and after eating, and after going to the toilet).
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and dispose of it straight away; wash your hands afterwards.
  • Cough or sneeze into your (flexed) elbow.
  • Cough away from other people.
  • Stay more than 1.5 metres away from people.

Avoid touching your face and mouth while out in public. Do not touch, kiss or hug people outside your immediate family.

What is the difference between 'physical distancing' and 'social distancing'?

Physical distancing is a better term to describe how you should keep your distance from people during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may be physically distanced, but you can still be social in other ways.

It's important that people stay in touch and continue to be social with their family and friends for their own mental health and wellbeing. Phone calls, video calls and social media can help you stay connected with loved ones.

Everyone is being encouraged to stay at home as much as possible and only leave your home for essential reasons, like going to work or school, shopping for essentials and for medical reasons.

Physical distancing helps reduce the risk of a virus being transmitted and includes:

  • avoiding crowds and mass gatherings where it is hard to keep a reasonable distance from others (about 1.5 metres)
  • avoiding small gatherings in enclosed spaces
  • keeping 1.5 metres between you and other people
  • not shaking hands, hugging or kissing
  • not visiting vulnerable people, such as those in aged care facilities or hospitals, babies or people with weakened immune systems

What is 'non-essential travel'?

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Australian Government advises against non-essential travel — especially journeys interstate. This does not include travel that’s part of everyday life, such as journeys to work, school or to the shops.

Travel restrictions, however, are changing as part of the Australian Government’s ‘Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia’ — a 3-step plan to reopen the economy. It’s up to each state and territory to decide when it begins each step.

For more information on travel restrictions in your state or territory, go to the healthdirect Restriction Checker.

How many people can be at a gathering?

The Australian Government has recommended easing restrictions on gatherings, but it’s up to each state and territory to decide how to do this. There are limits to how many people can gather in one place.

To find out how many people you can gather with at one time in your region, use the healthdirect Restriction Checker.

You’re able to leave your home at any time to:

  • shop
  • receive medical care, provide care to another person or for other compassionate reasons
  • work or study
  • exercise
  • visit parks and playgrounds
  • dine in cafes and restaurants

Continue to maintain 1.5 metres between yourself and others. Practise good hand and cough hygiene and stay at home if you’re unwell.

Penalties, such as fines and jail sentences, may apply if physical distancing rules and limits are not followed. States and territories will be responsible for enforcing this.

Am I allowed to visit a patient in hospital?

Hospitals in Australia have introduced restrictions on who can visit patients and for how long. Most hospitals are limiting visits to 1 or 2 people per day and have a time limit on how long you can stay with the person.

It’s important to check the hospital’s website, and call ahead before you go, to see if you are allowed to visit. You should also discuss with your family and friends who should be given priority to visit.

Depending on why a patient is in hospital might also affect who is able to visit them. If they are very sick, have a certain type of illness or in a high risk group, like the elderly, they may not be able to have any visitors.

If you are allowed to see a patient in hospital, you should follow any rules the hospital has on physical distancing, and hand and cough hygiene.

If you are not feeling well, you should not visit anyone in hospital.

How does COVID-19 spread from human to human?

The virus is most likely to spread from person to person:

  • through direct contact with a person while they are infectious
  • through contact with droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • through touching objects or surfaces, such as door handles or tables, then touching your face or mouth (where an infected person has coughed or sneezed and contaminated the surface with droplets)

Does wearing a mask help reduce my risk of COVID-19?

Cloth and surgical masks help stop droplets spreading when people talk, cough and sneeze, reducing the risk of spreading the virus.

If you are generally healthy and not caring for a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19, it is not recommended that you wear a face mask if there is no community transmission. However, if you are ill, you should wear one. Further, if you live in an area with an outbreak, you may be either legally required or urged to wear one.

Before and after you put on your cloth mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser containing more than 60% alcohol.

You should change the mask as soon as it becomes damp or dirty. Do not reuse single-use masks.

Learn more about how masks can help prevent COVID-19.

What is a ‘close contact’?

Close contacts are people who’ve had face-to-face contact with a confirmed or probable COVID-19 case for more than 15 minutes in total over the course of 1 week. For example, having 3 chats of 5 minutes each over 7 days is considered 15 minutes’ total contact.

You’re also a close contact if you’ve shared a closed space for more than 2 hours with someone who’s a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 — including in the 48 hours before their symptoms appeared.

If you’ve had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, you’ll need to quarantine for 14 days.

Close contacts also include people who meet any of the following criteria in the different settings listed below.

Household contacts

  • Someone who lives in the same household or in a household-like setting, such as a boarding school or hostel

Hospital/school/aged-care facility/GP clinic setting

  • Someone who has direct contact with the body fluids or laboratory specimens of a confirmed case if they’re not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or the recommended PPE
  • Someone who spent 2 hours or more in the same room, such as a GP or ED waiting room, a school classroom, or communal room in an aged care facility
  • Someone who’s not wearing recommended PPE who’s in the same hospital room as a patient, where a procedure makes the patient cough and generate aerosols

Aircraft

  • Aircraft passengers seated in the same row as the confirmed or probable COVID-19 case, or in the 2 rows in front or 2 rows behind them. (Similar seating or proximity criteria can apply to contact tracing for long bus or train trips.)
  • For aircraft crew members who were exposed to a confirmed or probable case, the airline and authorities should conduct a case-by-case risk assessment to identify close contacts.
  • If an aircraft crew member has COVID-19, contact tracing should focus on passengers seated in the area the crew member worked during the flight, and other crew members. The airline and authorities should conduct a case-by-case risk assessment to identify which passengers and crew members are managed as close contacts.

Cruise ships

  • The cruise company and authorities should conduct a case-by-case risk assessment to identify which passengers and crew should be managed as close contacts.
  • Contact should have occurred within 48 hours before symptoms began in someone who has COVID-19 until it’s confirmed they’re no longer infectious.

Who are not considered ‘close contacts’?

Healthcare workers and other contacts who have used full PPE and taken recommended precautions to control infections, while caring for symptomatic confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases are not considered close contacts.

What should I do if I have been in close contact with a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19 infection or with an international traveller?

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who’s a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 — including close contact in the 48 hours before they became unwell — you must quarantine in your home for 14 days after your last contact with the confirmed or probable case. Someone from your local public health unit will contact you. If you remain well after 14 days you can leave quarantine.

If you develop symptoms during this time, you must get tested for COVID-19. If you test positive, you must isolate. Anyone who's entered your household is a close contact and must quarantine.

If you test negative for COVID19, you must complete quarantine and stay at home for the full 14-day quarantine period.

Living with other people while in quarantine

If you’re well, people you live with don’t need to quarantine unless they have had contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. You should limit your contact with them as much as possible by:

  • staying in your own room
  • using a separate bathroom, if you can
  • staying at least 1.5 metres away from each other
  • avoiding common areas and wearing a mask when moving through these areas
  • wearing a mask when in the same room as each other
  • not sharing a room with people, especially those at risk of severe disease. This includes older people and those with heart, lung or kidney conditions, and diabetes
  • practising good hand hygiene and covering coughs and sneezes with a clean tissue that you dispose of immediately or the inside of your elbow, then washing your hands
  • avoiding sharing household items
  • frequently cleaning the house, especially things people touch often, like door handles.

For more information, visit health.gov.au. Search for ‘Quarantine for coronavirus (COVID-19)’ and scroll to ‘What is a close contact?’

If a household member has returned from overseas, does everyone else in the household need to self-isolate?

All travellers who arrive in Australia by air or sea must quarantine for 14 days at a state or territory-designated facility, such as a hotel.

So when the person comes home after mandatory quarantine, if they are feeling well, no one else in the household will need to self-isolate.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker to find out if you need to seek medical help.

If the Symptom Checker tells you to contact your GP, please make sure you call your doctor to describe your symptoms and contact with a confirmed or probable coronavirus (COVID-19) case. You can also attend a COVID-19 clinic in your area.

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

There are currently no vaccines or specific antiviral medicine to prevent or treat COVID-19. However, many countries are working hard to develop a vaccine, including Australia. Practising good hand and cough hygiene is the best way to protect yourself from the virus.

I’ve heard that COVID-19 can be transmitted through faeces. Is this true?

Transmission via faeces hasn’t been established. In the absence of diarrhoea, transmission of COVID-19 is unlikely. Hand washing is critical to preventing viruses in general, so always wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet.

What is the Government’s ‘Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia’?

The ‘Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia’ is a 3-step plan to reopen the economy. It’s up to each state and territory to decide when it begins each step. The National Cabinet, made up of state, territory and federal leaders, will review progress every 3 weeks.

Step 1 aims to reconnect family and friends by allowing slightly more people to gather in public and visit homes. Some hospitality, shops and community areas will open, and kids will go back to school. Some regional travel will be possible and there will be small increases to the number of people who can attend weddings and funerals.

Step 2 will increase the size of public gatherings and guests to homes again. Even more retailers and services can open, and there may be some interstate travel.

Step 3 will allow for bigger public gatherings and more domestic travel. The plan’s timing and progress will depend on public health advice, and states and territories won't move to the next step unless it's safe to do so.

For information on the easing of restrictions in your state or territory, use the healthdirect Restriction Checker.

You can see the Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia here.


More frequently asked questions (FAQs) about COVID-19

Click on the links below for more questions and answers about the coronavirus (COVID-19).


Information and alerts

Visit the Department of Health's website for the latest alerts on COVID-19 in Australia, or the World Health Organization's website for global updates.


Resources in other languages

COVID-19 resources in other languages are available from the Department of Health, as well as from the ACT, NSW, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic and WA health departments.

Information is also available in Aboriginal languages (NT).


Information for health professionals

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) provides coronavirus (COVID-19) information for GPs.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2020


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