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Explainer: What is ‘Flattening the Curve?’ And Why Are We ‘Socially Distancing?’

Public health officials want people to socially distance themselves and not b...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: Public health officials want people to socially distance themselves and not be in crowded places like the one pictured above. Experts say the coronavirus is contagious. For every one person, another two or three people could get the disease.

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These ideas may not make sense right now, so we've put together an explainer to show why flattening the curve is key to making sure the country's health care system doesn't get overwhelmed.

Aired: March 18, 2020 | Transcript

This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered many businesses to temporarily close their doors to create "social distance" and “flatten the curve.” These ideas may not make sense right now, so we've put together an explainer to show why flattening the curve is key to making sure the country's health care system doesn't get overwhelmed.

Many Of Us Don't Know We Have Coronavirus

Social distancing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s keeping your distance — at least 6 feet— from other people. Some examples include working from home, skipping out on happy hours, and avoiding large gatherings such as concerts.

There are a few reasons why officials are asking for this. The first is that many people who have the virus don’t know it. In fact, they may even seem perfectly healthy, says medical anthropologist Bonnie Kaiser with UC San Diego.

How Coronavirus Spreads

For every one person who gets coronavirus, another one or two people could get it, as shown in the animated illustration above. Credit: Andi Dukleth.

"We’re starting to get data where maybe 25% of infections, or exposures are happening when people are asymptomatic," Kaiser said.

That also means many people may not realize they’re spreading the virus. That’s why officials say if there isn’t social distancing, the number of people getting sick will grow exponentially like this:

"If you take a single drop of water and you double the size of it every minute, within less than an hour it will fill a baseball stadium," Kaiser said.

So, for every person who tests positive, another 2 people could get the virus, and those numbers keep doubling. This rate of this growth can quickly become a problem, because as the number of people getting sick goes up, so will the number of people who need to go to the hospital.

Flattening The Curve

Flattening the curve is necessary to make sure the healthcare system doesn't get overwhelmed, as shown in the animated illustration above.

The Health Care System Can Only Handle So Much

And that’s where the phrase “flatten the curve” comes in, says UC San Diego health economist Jefferey Clemens. He says officials want to reduce the wave, or curve, of patients that hit the healthcare system at one time.

"One way to think about the health system is that it’s there to manage the flow of patient health needs across the population in the same way that a drainage system is there to manage the flow of water that comes from storms," Clemens said.

Sometimes when it storms, those drains aren’t able to manage all the rain, and that leads to damaging floods. Picture what could happen when a surge of patients check into doctors offices across the country.

"So the idea behind the social distancing and the flattening out of the curve is an effort to spread out the flow of patients so that it doesn’t overwhelm the system like a major storm at any one point in time," Clemens said.

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Public health officials are recommending that people self-isolate, work at home and continuously wash their hands, as shown in the illustration above.

What Happens When We Don't 'Flatten the Curve'

Countries around the world are implementing quarantine measures, alongside social distancing, to reduce patient growth and flow into the health care system.

In Italy, lessons have already been learned. Last week, nearly 400 people there died in just one day. Manuela Raffatellu is a scientist at UCSD who’s also from Italy. She’s been monitoring the situation.

"In northern italy, I’d like to highlight this is one of the best health care in the country and one of the best health care systems in the world," Raffatellu said.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

But, Raffatellu said, some people didn’t take seriously how contagious the virus is, so the disease spread.

"In the city of Bergamo, they started quarantining a little later than other cities, and this one week delay for the lock down really cost them a lot... The entire newspaper is basically dedicated to people who died in a very short time," Raffatellu said.

Doctors even in Northern Italy are having to make tough calls on who can be seen, because medical staff is limited. Or, they have to decide who can get life-saving supplies that are running out like ventilators, which help people breath.

Protecting Hospital Beds For The Most Vulnerable

And the United States over time has reduced its medical staff and hospital beds as its gotten more efficient, so the system could get overwhelmed if we don’t flatten the curve, said economist Clemens.

"The system as a whole has roughly 1 million hospital beds — 100,000 beds are ICU beds. In the event we see a surge of COVID-19 infections that system could very easily be overwhelmed," Clemens said.

Those beds are for more than 300 million people in the United States. Raffatellu said it’s important for people to think about who needs those beds the most: people who could be vulnerable to a severe case of coronavirus.

"Our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors. We need to do this even if we are healthy," Raffatellu said.

But remember, flattening the curve isn’t about panicking, just about keeping a safe distance to slow the rate of the virus.

Reported by Shalina Chatlani , Video by Andi Dukleth

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Photo of Shalina Chatlani

Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

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