By Gabriela Baron
“Flattening the curve” is the goal of social distancing and other measures that include things like canceling large events and sending employees off to work from home.
Schools are closing, major sporting events are postponing, universities are holding classes online, and cultural institutions are shutting their doors. The disruption of daily life for many is real and significant — but so are the potential-life saving benefits.
It’s all part of an effort to do what epidemiologists call flattening the curve of the pandemic. The idea is to increase social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus, so that you don’t get a huge spike in the number of people getting sick all at once.
Social distancing is a public health tactic that helps communities slow down the transmission and spread of the coronavirus.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information, the database arm of the United States National Library of Medicine, found that in areas and regions where a disease is spreading, taking measures like work from home, shutting down schools, and canceling large events can dramatically reduce the rate of new infections.
Big tech companies are asking employees to work from home as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon have implemented remote working policies for many or all of their employees around the globe.
“It’s like stopping a pack of matches from lighting by separating the other half from the first three that are firing off,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.
Flattening the curve
To keep hospitals and doctors’ offices from becoming overwhelmed with sick patients, the ultimate goal for public health authorities is to flatten the curve.
The chart illustrates the wave of new coronavirus cases expected to hit. A high curve means the virus is spreading quickly; some people won’t get the medical care they need, and the number of deaths is likely to increase. This is what is happening in Italy.
According to a report by the New York Times, in less than three weeks, the virus has overloaded hospitals in northern Italy. It has turned the hard-hit Lombardy region into a grim glimpse of what awaits other countries if they cannot flatten the curve. Hospitals in northern Italy have forced doctors and nurses to make extraordinary decisions about who may live and who may die.
Giorgo Gori, the mayor of Bergamo, said that in some cases in Lombardy the gap between resources and the enormous influx of patients forced the doctors to decide not to intubate some very old patients.
A low curve, meanwhile, means coronavirus is spreading slowly, giving hospitals and doctors the time and resources to treat more people.
In other words, flattening the curve’s goal is to not have cases come all at once. That does not mean that the number of people who are infected would necessarily be lower, but that the infections would not come all at once.
The chart was originally shared by population health analyst Drew Harris on Twitter.
“Important to remember that COVID-19 epidemic control measures may only delay cases, not prevent. However, this helps limit surge and gives hospitals time to prepare and manage. It’s the difference between finding an ICU bed and ventilator or being treated in the parking lot tent,” Harris said.
Harris took a graphic created by journalist Rosamund Pearce, which was based on another chart in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paper.
The viral graphic has been adapted and shared widely online in different forms.