With COVID-19 cases’ continuing to rise in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the National Institutes of Health, has encouraged all to do their part to halt the spread of new infections by “flattening the curve.”
“By flattening the curve, you’re essentially trying to challenge the health care system with the same number of cases but spread out over a longer period of time,” explained Jeanne Marrazzo, M.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Infectious Diseases. “In slowing down the spread of disease by minimizing transmission opportunities through social distancing techniques, we aren’t overwhelming health systems as we are able to curb the spread of new infections.”
As noted in the accompanying graph showing a steep curve, if a high influx of infected patients all try to get medical attention at the same time at hospitals that are regularly nearing capacity carrying for “normal” patients, the demand for physician care and support will overwhelm the system and break the existing infrastructure. Hard decisions about where resources need to be allocated will need to be made, and critical supplies will be depleted.
Essentially, without protective measures, cases will continue to mount at alarming rates.
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However, if strict social distancing measures are implemented nationwide in local communities, the rate of infections can be slowed, and then are spread over a longer period of time — as noted in the horizontal curve — and patients can be cared for more intentionally. This will help alleviate additional strain on resources and health care providers, and ultimately help taper off the rate of new infections.
With protective measures in place, the curve of new cases can remain shallow, which helps keep healthy people safe and allows time for sick individuals to get well.
But how does social distancing make an impact? Marrazzo explains that, by canceling or not attending social gatherings with more than 25 people, staying 6 feet away from others, minimizing contact with others outside your home through self-quarantining measures — all while practicing healthy hand hygiene — we can proactively decrease the number of people who are susceptible to infection.
“This is the time that people need to make personal sacrifices for the greater good,” Marrazzo said. “Hard decisions about canceling events, trips, even weddings will have to be made; but we as a collective society need to band together in an effort to protect our communities. This pandemic cannot be slowed down unless we intervene and make a difference together.”