Coronavirus: what is ‘flattening the curve’ and how will it save us?
'If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down'
As countries across the globe report new cases of coronavirus daily, experts are turning their attention to what is called “flattening the curve”.
Public health experts and government officials believe this is perhaps the best approach to deal with Covid-19.
But what does it mean? Can normal people do anything to help ‘flatten the curve?’
What does flattening the curve mean?
It is all about attempting to slow down the spread of infection, so that health systems do not become overwhelmed.
There is still uncertainty around the new virus but one thing experts do know is that it is highly contagious.
While a lot of people may end up being infected (some governments have said as many as 80 per cent of the population could catch coronavirus in a worst-case scenario) interventions can slowdown how quickly it spreads among the population.
The rapid spread of coronavirus means it may no longer be possible to isolate and eliminate it before it officially becomes a pandemic.
“Flattening the curve” means trying to delay its spread and this strategy may work in the days to come.
“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force said in a press conference on Tuesday.
If lots of people are going to get it, shouldn’t we just get it over with?
In a word, no.
Heath systems across the world are not equipped for large number of people to suddenly fall ill, especially with a highly contagious infection.
This would mean placing patients into isolation.
While there is some capacity to cope with busier periods (for example more people typically fall ill over winter in colder countries), flexibility is limited.
If a huge number of people get sick at once, systems will struggle to cope.
There may not be enough beds for those with coronavirus who need specialist care like the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.
This affects the mortality rate – more people die if they do not receive proper care.
It could also lead to a snowball effect, where if testing and treatment is not available to those infected, they will pass on the illness to others more easily.
If the same number of people fall sick, but over a longer period of time, there will be less of a ‘spike’ and hospitals will not be as overwhelmed as they might have been.
A more gentle increase also means more time to adapt and prepare, as well as create more opportunities for research.
So how do we flatten the curve?
Control measures can be highly effective in slowing the spread of the disease, experts believe.
These are fairly straightforward, with governments and businesses around the world, including in the UAE, already following health and precautionary advise.
But there are also measures everybody can take to help, from staying home if you are feeling unwell to being diligent about hand washing.
Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, co-created a widely shared graph illustrating the flattening of the curve in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The steps we take now, individually and as a community, will determine the trajectory of the Covid-19 epidemic
“Even if you don’t reduce total cases, slowing down the rate of an epidemic can be critical,” he said.
“Through aggressive sanitation efforts, diligent hand-washing, cancelling large gatherings, minimising travel, teleworking, and similar measures we can flatten out the epidemic curve, keeping the number of people simultaneously infected at a low enough level to be manageable.
“The steps we take now, individually and as a community, will determine the trajectory of the Covid-19 epidemic. This in turn will determine how many lives are lost. It is not just a matter of protecting yourself; it is a matter of protecting the most vulnerable among us.”
The novel coronavirus has infected 119,108 people and killed 4,280 as of March 10.
Updated: March 11, 2020 06:25 PM