Flatten the curve: what does it mean and why is it important?

The Editors
Photo credit: Morsa Images - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to rapidly spread, health experts globally are calling for populations to help "flatten the curve" - but what exactly does this mean and why is it important?

While people around the world are trying to understand the implications of COVID-19 and protect themselves from the virus, much has been shared online and across social media in an attempt to encourage people to stay indoors. The latest government update delivered by Boris Johnson advises social isolation and avoiding crowded places like pubs, clubs and theatres.

In amongst all this, a simple graph - the "flattening the curve" chart - has emerged, shedding some light on how coronavirus is expected to spread and how we can help. The graph depicts two curves - one high and steep (indicating a fast spread) and one low and more gradual (which represents a slower, more controlled spread). A dotted line indicates the capacity and resource of our hospitals.

Essentially, if the virus spreads too quickly - as it has in Italy - and we see a high curve, then the NHS won't have the resources to cope, meaning not everyone will get the help they need and the number of deaths is likely to increase. A low curve means that the virus is spreading more slowly, allowing hospitals the time and resources to treat more people, resulting in more recoveries.

The chart was first shared on Twitter by Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Harris used a graphic originally created by journalist Rosamund Pearce, which was based on another chart in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paper. Harris then added the dotted line to indicate the capacity and resource of our hospitals, "to make clear what was at stake" he explained in an email to the New York Times.

Essentially, what it means is that while we may be helpless to stop the spread of the virus, we can help to slow its progress. So how do we "flatten the curve"? Essentially, through social distancing.

Harris' email explained:

"The difference between seasonal flu and coronavirus is that many people have full or partial immunity to the flu virus because they have had it before or were vaccinated against it. Far more people are vulnerable to coronavirus, so it has many more targets of opportunity to spread. Keeping people apart in time and space with social distancing measures, self-isolation and actual quarantine decreases opportunities for transmission.

"Take the subway [as an example]; a packed car — or a packed subway platform — is a great place to spread the virus. But reducing the number of people on the train or platform, by asking people to work from home or to stagger their working hours, enables individuals to stay farther apart, limiting the spread of the virus. That is social distancing in action.

"Mitigation efforts keep people farther apart, making every transmission opportunity marginally less likely. This slows the spread. We should, and will, take the most vulnerable people out of the population altogether by keeping them totally separate."

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