During outbreaks of infectious diseases with high morbidity and mortality, individuals closely follow media reports of the outbreak. Many will attempt to minimize contacts with other individuals in order to protect themselves from infection and possibly death. This process is called social distancing. Social distancing strategies include restricting socializing and travel, and using barrier protections.
We use modeling to show that for short-term outbreaks, social distancing can have a large influence on reducing outbreak morbidity and mortality. In particular, public health agencies working together with the media can significantly reduce the severity of an outbreak by providing timely accounts of new infections and deaths.
Our models show that the most effective strategy to reduce infections is to provide this information as early as possible, though providing it well into the course of the outbreak can still have a significant effect. However, our models for long-term outbreaks indicate that reporting historic infection data can result in more infections than with no reporting at all.
We examine three types of media influence and we illustrate the media influence with a simulated outbreak of a generic emerging infectious disease in a small city. Social distancing can never be complete; however, for a spectrum of outbreaks, we show that leaving isolation (stopping applying social distancing measures) for up to 4 hours each day has modest effect on the overall morbidity and mortality.