With Coronavirus, the Importance of Flattening the Curve

Protective measures prevent explosive transmission that could overwhelm our health care system.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, there is a lot of uncertainty about how big it will get.

According to infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at Harvard, it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60 percent of adults will be infected with Covid-19 disease. So far, 80 percent of cases globally have been mild, but if the case fatality rate is around 1 percent (which several experts say it may be), a scenario is possible of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US alone.

The difference between 20 and 60 percent of adults getting the virus is huge. But even more important than that is how fast it happens.

At this point, with the virus spreading in America, the top priority is making sure the health care system avoids being flooded with very sick patients who need ventilators and intensive care.

“From a US standpoint, you want to prevent any place from becoming the next Wuhan,” says Tom Frieden, who led the CDC under President Barack Obama. “What that means is even if we’re not able to prevent widespread transmission, we want to prevent explosive transmission and anything that overwhelms the health care system.”

Efforts to slow down the spread of the virus are referred to as “flattening the curve.” They may not result if fewer cases, but simply spread them out over a longer period of time. Doing so is less likely to overwhelm hospitals and our health care system.

As we hear more announcements about canceled events, school closures, and travel restrictions, those are all attempts to flatten the curve. The effect of such measures has been captured by this graph, which is making the rounds.

Complying with these protective measures isn’t simply important for those who are sick or elderly.

[E]ven if you’re young and healthy, it’s your job to follow social distancing measures to avoid spreading it to others, and keep the epidemic in slow motion. “The more young and healthy people are sick at the same time, the more old people will be sick, and the more pressure there will be on the health care system,” said Landon.

Hospitals filled with Covid-19 patients won’t just strain to care for those patients — doctors may also have to prioritize them over others. “Right now there’s always a doctor available when you need one, but that may not be the case if we’re not careful,” says Landon.

In light of that, both Sanders and Biden cancelled rallies that had been scheduled to take place in Ohio Tuesday night. Hillary Clinton weighed in with some good advice.

As events, schools, and businesses shut down in response to concerns about the coronavirus, it is important for all of us to pay heed and do our part to flatten the curve so as not to overtax our health care system.

Stay well, everyone!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.