Social Distancing Alters the Clinical Course of COVID-19 in Young Adults: A Comparative Cohort Study

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Feb 16;72(4):598-603. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa889.


Background: Social distancing and stringent hygiene seem to be effective in reducing the number of transmitted virus particles, and therefore the infectivity, of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and could alter the mode of transmission of the disease. However, it is not known if such practices can change the clinical course in infected individuals.

Methods: We prospectively studied an outbreak of COVID-19 in Switzerland among a population of 508 predominantly male soldiers with a median age of 21 years. We followed the number of infections in 2 spatially separated cohorts with almost identical baseline characteristics with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) before and after implementation of stringent social distancing.

Results: Of the 354 soldiers infected prior to the implementation of social distancing, 30% fell ill from COVID-19, while no soldier in a group of 154, in which infections appeared after implementation of social distancing, developed COVID-19 despite the detection of viral RNA in the nasal and virus-specific antibodies within this group.

Conclusions: Social distancing not only can slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in a cohort of young, healthy adults but it can also prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 while still inducing an immune response and colonizing nasal passages. Viral inoculum during infection or mode of transmission may be a key factor determining the clinical course of COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; cohort study; social distancing; viral inoculum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Distancing*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Switzerland / epidemiology
  • Young Adult