Workplace social distancing interventions are effective at slowing the spread of a virus and far more so when combined with additional interventions. This insight comes from a systematic review of research that was published in BMC Public Health.
When a virus outbreak occurs, widespread immunization by way of vaccine can be six months or more out of reach. Social distancing, on the other hand, is a method of protection that can be set in motion almost as soon as a virus is discovered. Since workplaces are zones of routine human contact, researchers set out to examine the effectiveness of workplace social distancing at slowing the spread of an influenza pandemic.
Researchers explored findings from 15 studies that examined social distancing in workplaces outside the healthcare sector. Twelve studies were modeling studies, which meant that they used scientific data to make predictions. Nine were epidemiological studies based in actual settings. The origins of the studies varied from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The researchers used a reproduction number (R0) to denote the transmissibility of a given virus. The assigned number represented the average number of secondary cases resulting from a single case of infection.
Results showed that for studies modeling a reproduction number less than 1.9, “workplace social distancing measures alone (single intervention) showed a median reduction of 23% in the cumulative influenza attack rate in the general population.” When workplace social distancing was combined with additional interventions (e.g., school closures, reduced community contact, and pharmaceutical treatment) this median reduction jumped to 75%.
A delay in initiating workplace social distancing as well as lower compliance to interventions reduced effectiveness in the modeling studies. Researchers suggest several reasons for this.
They share, “Delayed triggering of workplace social distancing precludes the opportunity to impact cases that have already occurred and represents a missed opportunity to diminish further transmission.” Additionally, they suggest that initiating social distancing prematurely can also reduce effectiveness, by causing “intervention fatigue” and lowering compliance to distancing measures.
Four modeling studies and one epidemiological study provided evidence that workplace social distancing can delay the peak of a virus, showing a median delay of six days with intervention compared to non-intervention.
Epidemiological studies looking at workplace distancing during 2009 influenza A (H1N1) also showed a reduction in seroconversion, which is when the immune system begins to produce antibodies after being infected with a virus. They further showed a decrease in influenza-like illness. However, researchers acknowledge possible bias in all three epidemiological studies. They call for future research to employ more epidemiological studies and to examine social distancing in a diversity of work settings.
Researchers address the challenge of projecting their findings onto future situations. They explain, “Because the effectiveness of workplace social distancing would depend on many factors, including R0, timing of implementation, and compliance, it is difficult to estimate the likely magnitude of impact in a future pandemic.”
Still, they conclude that a combination of workplace social distancing with additional community intervention strategies will be most effective in reducing virus transmission.
The study, “Effectiveness of workplace social distancing measures in reducing influenza transmission: a systematic review”, was authored by Faruque Ahmed, Nicole Zviedrite, and Amra Uzicanin.