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Social distancing and how to avoid the COVID-19 infection

10-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.

Check your symptoms

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

How do I avoid catching COVID-19?

The best way to avoid infection is to avoid contact with someone with COVID-19, practise 'social 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 'social distancing'?

‘Social distancing’ helps reduce the risk of a virus being transmitted.

Social distancing 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 help slow the spread of COVID-19, the Australian Government is advising that all non-essential travel should be cancelled. This includes all unnecessary travel within your own area, visiting other towns and cities and journeys interstate. If you have a trip or holiday planned, it should be cancelled.

This advice does not include travel that is part of everyday life, such as journeys to work or to the shops for essential supplies.

How many people can be at a gathering, and which public venues have closed?

The Australian Government strongly advises against any non-essential gatherings and any non-essential travel (even locally — see previous question).

Everyone is being asked to stay at home. Reasons for going out should be limited to:

  • shopping for essential goods, such as groceries
  • travelling to receive medical care, or for compassionate reasons
  • exercising (but with only one other person, such as a friend or personal trainer)
  • travelling to work or for study (but only if you can’t work or learn remotely)

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

Many types of non-essential indoor venues, businesses and activities where large numbers of the public gather are closed until further notice. For information on this, as well as where you are allowed to go and what you can do outside of your home, go to 'Social gatherings and business closures during the COVID-19 outbreak'

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?

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 surgical mask. There is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks by healthy people.

If you are ill, however, you should put on a mask, if you have one, to prevent spreading the infection to others. You will be given a mask to wear by your doctor.

What type of mask would I need?

If you suspect you are ill with COVID-19, you should wear a surgical mask when you are near other people. Surgical masks are only helpful in preventing the spread of coronaviruses to others from people with a confirmed or probable infection. They must also be used in combination with frequent hand-washing with soap and water (for 20 seconds) or alcohol-based hand rub (‘hand sanitiser’).

If you are well and are not caring for a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19, you do not need to wear a surgical mask. There is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks by healthy people.

If you need to wear a surgical mask, you should change the mask as soon as it becomes damp or dirty. Do not re-use single-use masks. More information about masks can be found on the Department of Health website.

Where can I get masks?

Your healthcare provider will give you a surgical mask to wear when you enter the hospital emergency department or clinic if it is suspected that you have COVID-19 (if you don't already have one). The hospital or clinic will also give you information on surgical masks and you should follow their advice on how to fit and wear the mask.

What is a ‘close contact’?

A close contact is someone who:

  • has had more than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact (in any setting) with a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19 (including in the 24 hours before their symptoms appeared)
  • has shared a closed space with a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19 for more than 2 hours (including in the 24 hours before their symptoms appeared)

Close contacts of a person with a confirmed or probable COVID-19 infection are at higher risk of infection. However, it's important that everyone understands the symptoms of COVID-19 and seeks medical attention if feeling unwell.

What is a 'casual contact'?

A casual contact is someone who has been in the same general area as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 while infectious. You are a casual contact if:

  • you have had less than 15 minutes face-to-face contact (in any setting) with a confirmed or probable case (including in the 24 hours before their symptoms appeared)
  • you have shared a closed space with a confirmed or probable case for less than 2 hours (including in the 24 hours before their symptoms appeared)

Casual contacts do not need to be excluded from work or school while well. You must closely monitor your health and if you experience any symptoms, you should isolate yourself. Use the healthdirect Symptom Checker, below, if you develop symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath.

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 seek medical help, it is very important that you call before visiting your doctor or the hospital emergency department, to describe your symptoms and travel history.

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 have had close contact with a person with confirmed or probable coronavirus (COVID-19) infection (including contact in the 24 hours before they became unwell), you should self-isolate immediately. Monitor your health closely for 14 days after your last contact with the person.

If you have had close contact with an international traveller but they have no symptoms of COVID-19, you should practise ‘social distancing’ (see What is 'social distancing'?, above). If the person develops symptoms, you should self-isolate immediately.

Use the Symptom Checker, below, if you develop any symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath.

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 seek medical help, it is very important that you call before visiting your doctor or the hospital emergency department, to describe your symptoms and travel history.

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.


More frequently asked questions (FAQs)

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


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: March 2020


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