Continuing the COVID-19 series – it appears that a lot of people either question the idea of flattening the curve or simply are not aware of it. I think it’s important to talk about it today. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in this idea, but I think that with some modest collective effort we can change the situation with the COVID-19 for better.
What curve are we taking about?
If we look at the progression of an epidemic (or pandemic) or a bacterial growth, specifically at the number of cases (or bacteria in a Petri dish) in time, we will see a curve that lots of people call exponential (in fact, the proper term for it is “logistic” as neither the Petri dish for bacteria, nor the population for viral spread are unlimited). Usually, indeed, the growth starts in an exponential fashion, but at certain point it slows down and the curve starts to deflect due to a variety of environmental limitations (Fig 1). In case of our virus, the limitation would be the number of potential non-immune carriers.
What does it mean for us?
Right now, we are still in the exponential growth part of this curve – the number of cases multiplies and, accordingly, the number of serious cases that require hospitalization, ICU, ventilators etc. multiplies too. If it continues to go this way, very soon we will run out of resources and we will not be able to help a lot of people as the health care system will reach its capacity. We have seen it happening in Italy where, according to the news, doctors had to decide which one patient will receive a ventilator and will live. Out of five people, which means that the remaining four would likely not make it. It is a very tragic situation that in 21st century in a highly developed country we are facing shortages like that.
What is “flattening the curve”?
The solution to this problem is trying to decrease the reproduction number of the virus, meaning we want to slow down the progression of the virus so that the multiplier for the exponential growth part of the curve will be much smaller, say 1.2-1.3 instead of 2-3 and though the curve will still go up, it will go up much slower and it will give us an opportunity to manage the diseased much better. In this case, the curve will be much flatter (Fig.2) and that’s why we call it “flattening the curve”.
What does “flattening the curve” entail?
First and foremost, our medical system will not be overwhelmed and thus we will be able to provide high quality care to everyone (hopefully) who needs it. Second, we will buy time – to develop and test treatments, to work on vaccines, to study the virus better, to get the supplies we need such as personal protective equipment, ventilators etc. I know that in some places they build mobile hospitals and it also takes time. The overall result – mitigation of harm and much higher preparedness of the medical system.
What can we all do to flatten the curve?
The main variable that we can affect is the reproduction number – how many people each infected person will pass the virus to. We can collectively work on minimizing our individual risk of contracting the virus and spreading it. And the best strategy is limiting physical contacts (social, or, I would rather say, physical distancing) and exposure in general by using personal protective equipment and sanitary measures to minimize any risk of transmission. I do believe that these guidelines will help us to fight off this pandemic.
I hope that my blog was convincing enough, and you will be able and willing to contribute to our collective safety. I in turn will work on further blogs, so stay tuned, follow the existing recommendations such as minimizing contacts with others, using personal protective equipment, using proper hygienic procedures etc. Please support my YouTube channel by subscribing and feel free to make suggestions or ask questions – we all are in this situation together and we must stay focused, safe and healthy.
PS. I would like to remind you that though I’m a practicing physician, the things that I share here are not medical advice. If you need such please talk to your family doctor, your specialist or your local emergency room.
Links to the relevant resources:
Figure 1. Used under Creative Commons License. Source: