Flattening the curve

The rapid growth rate in Italy has already filled some hospitals there to capacity, forcing emergency rooms to close their doors to new patients, hire hundreds of new doctors and request emergency supplies of basic medical equipment, like respirator masks, from abroad.

In epidemiology, the idea of slowing a virus’ spread so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time is known as flattening the curve. It explains why so many countries are implementing social distancing guidelines — including a shelter in place order that affects 6.7 million people in Northern California (U.S.), even though COVID-19 outbreaks there might not yet seem severe.

The curve researchers are talking about refers to the projected number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a period of time.

The ideal goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic is to completely halt the spread. But merely slowing it is critical. This reduces the number of cases that are active at any given time, which in turn gives doctors, hospitals, police, schools and vaccine-manufacturers time to prepare and respond, without becoming overwhelmed (most hospitals can function with 10% reduction in staff, but not with half their people out at once).

The faster the infection curve rises, the quicker the local healthcare system gets overloaded beyond its capacity to treat people. As we’re seeing in Italy, more and more new patients may be forced to go without Intensive Care Units (ICUs) beds, and more and more hospitals may run out of the basic supplies they need to respond to the outbreak.

A flatter curve, on the other hand, assumes the same number of people ultimately get infected, but over a longer period of time. A slower infection rate means a less stressed healthcare system, fewer hospital visits on any given day and fewer sick people being turned away.

The healthcare system capacity is like a subway car that can only hold so many people at once: during rush hour, that capacity is not enough to handle the demand, so people must wait on the platform for their turn to ride.

Editorial Disclaimer: information published during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic may be updated frequently to reflect the dynamic nature of current understanding.

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