Flattening the Curve — What Does It Mean and How Can You Help?

By Liberty McArtor Published on March 16, 2020

In recent weeks you may have come across the phrase, “flatten the curve.” What does that mean, and why does it matter?

In short, “flattening the curve” is about slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It matters because the slower the virus spreads, the better hospitals will be able to care for those affected — even cutting into the number of deaths.

Why does flattening the curve matter for you? Because it’s going to take us working together to successfully slow the virus. If we do that, the people most at risk for complications from COVID-19 will be able to get the care they need.

Why Flatter is Better

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that “community mitigation strategies … often are the most readily available interventions to help slow transmission of [COVID-19] in communities.” They are “especially important before a vaccine or drug becomes widely available.” As of right now, there’s no vaccine, drug, or built-in immunity to stop the new coronavirus.

In late February Drew Harris, a population health and policy educator and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, shared an image on Twitter that’s since gone viral. The chart shows just how “community mitigation strategies” have the potential to work.

On the chart there are two curves. One is steep, one much flatter. The flatter curve peaks below a dotted line. The dotted line represents the capacity of the healthcare system. As Health.com summarizes:

A high curve means the virus is spreading quickly; some people won’t get the medical care they need, and the number of deaths is likely to increase. A low curve means coronavirus is spreading slowly, which gives doctors the time and resources to treat more people (and hopefully save more lives).

“The ideal goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic is to completely halt the spread,” Harris told The New York Times. “But merely slowing it — mitigation — is critical.” He goes on:

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.

For a glimpse into what an overwhelmed system looks like, read a few articles about the current situation in Italy. Some suggest Italy could pose a grim preview of what’s coming here. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to make a difference.

Keep Your Distance

How do we flatten the curve? It basically comes down to good hygiene (see the CDC website for details) and social distancing. Dictionary.com explains:

Social distancing measures often entail canceling big gatherings (such as conferences, classes, church services, concerts, and sporting events), restricting mass transit and travel, and working from home. The CDC specifically recommends maintaining a distance of 6 feet (2 meters) between people.

To that end, the CDC recommended on Sunday that all gatherings of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks.

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Why do these strategies work? COVID-19 spreads person-to-person. Specifically, it spreads through “respiratory droplets.” Think sneezes and coughs. Experts believe the virus can also survive on surfaces for a time. The more you’re around other people, the more likely you are to catch the virus — and pass it along. Some people who react mildly to the virus may not even realize they have it, and are spreading it wherever they go.

For a helpful visual of how COVID-19 spreads, see The Washington Post’s interactive graphics.

It’s Up to Us

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. “is going to be totally dependent upon how we respond to it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He’s been the Trump administration’s leading voice on the pandemic.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Fauci said in a press conference with President Donald Trump on Sunday. While experts have been warning sick and high-risk populations to self-isolate, Fauci recommends healthy people following suit. His suggestions include skipping travel and meals at restaurants, and taking other steps to reduce contact with others.

A Tough But Tangible Way to Love Your Neighbor

What if you’re not part of a high-risk demographic? Should you really disrupt your routine to avoid getting mild symptoms from which you’ll likely recover fairly quickly?

Yes, and here’s why.

COVID-19 is especially dangerous for the elderly and people with underlying conditions. High risk demographics include those with heart disease, lung disease, HIV/AIDs, compromised immune systems due to certain cancer treatments, and pregnant women — to name a few.

Chances are you know at least someone who falls into one of these categories. These people are most likely to have to go to the hospital and receive intensive care should they become infected. If we, as friends, family members, and Americans, don’t take the recommended precautions, the virus will spread very quickly. More vulnerable people will be infected over a shorter period of time. Hospitals will become overwhelmed. Those who need intensive care won’t receive it. Take the precautions, and those we know are better protected. 

Throughout our history, Americans have been called on to make sacrifices during crises. The global outbreak of this new virus is a crisis, but one that we can face — if we take it seriously, act responsibly, and put our neighbors’ needs before our own.


Liberty McArtor is a freelance writer in the great state of Texas, where she lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex with her husband and son. Follow Liberty on Twitter @LibertyMcArtor, or learn more about her at LibertyMcArtor.com.

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