What is ‘flattening the curve,’ and how does it relate to the coronavirus pandemic?

Those who are ravenously reading and listening to updates about the outbreak of COVID-19 have probably heard the term “flatten the curve” frequently bandied about in recent days in particular.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has used the term quite a lot. He is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and one of the most prominent officials in disseminating information to the public about how to combat the infectious disease that has spread to more than 100 countries and infected 156,400 people and claimed nearly 6,000 lives, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, as of Sunday morning.

“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, you know, they go up big peaks, and then they come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” he has said publicly. “That would have less people infected. That would, ultimately, have less deaths.”

Fauci is referring to strategies aimed at extending the duration of the deadly illness, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December, so that public health services aren’t overwhelmed by patients requiring critical aid. The strategy entails reducing large gatherings so that greater numbers of people aren’t sickened.

MarketWatch’s Jacob Passy reported on Saturday that by flattening the curve through effective public health measures, the number of people simultaneously infected will be lower than if no measures were taken. “This ensures that the health-care system is not overburdened, though it can mean that the outbreak will be somewhat prolonged,” Passy writes.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some 15% to 20% of patients require hospitalization due to illness incurred in the coronavirus outbreak, which was upgraded to a pandemic by the World Health Organization last week.

The approach of seeking a flattened curve, then, is ultimately one centered on math that aims to prevent an explosion in cases.

The U.S. has about 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, according to industry website STAT News, which reports on public health and science issues. “With a [U.S.] population of 330 million, this is about 1 million hospital beds. At any given time, about 68% of them are occupied. That leaves about 300,000 beds available nationwide,” the publication writes.

Estimates for the spread of COVID-19 nationwide project that there could be 1 million cases by next month and 4 million cases of the illness by mid-May, if the disease isn’t mitigated by strategies such as social distancing or stricter methods adopted in other countries, including quarantining large numbers of the population, as was done in China’s Hubei Province, the epicenter of the global pandemic, or lockdown measures enacted by Italy and Spain more recently.

China’s quarantines and other strict tactics have been credited with substantially lessening the outbreak. President Xi Jinping last week visited the Hubei Province capital Wuhan and said that the country has turned the tide against the deadly outbreak.

Drew Harris, a health expert at Thomas Jefferson University, compared the concept of flattening the curve to a packed subway system in an interview with NPR on Wednesday.

“If you think of [the] health-care system as a subway car, and it’s rush hour, and everybody wants to get on the car once, so they start piling up at the door. They pile up on the platform,” he said. “There’s just not enough room in the car to take care of everybody, to accommodate everybody.”

Harris said via Twitter that reining in the infection surge “gives hospitals time to prepare and manage.” That’s particularly the case when vital resources are needed to treat patients, including ventilators, respirators and intensive-care units, absent a ready vaccine for the illness.

A vaccine, experts have said, remains a year away at best.

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