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

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 This week, California governor Gavin Newsome ordered many businesses to temporarily close their doors to create social distance. We're doing this to flatten the curve. KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina Chet Lani explains what that means and why it's so critical to slowing the spread of the Corona virus. Social distancing is exactly what it sounds like. It's keeping your distance at least six feet from other people. So 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.

Speaker 2: 00:46 We're starting to get data where it may be 25% of, um, infections are, uh, or of exposures are happening when people are asymptomatic.

Speaker 1: 00:54 That 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. Here's what that looks like.

Speaker 2: 01:06 If you double the size of a drop of water every minute, within less than an hour, it'll fill a baseball stadium.

Speaker 1: 01:13 So for every person who tests positive, another two people could get the virus and those numbers keep doubling. This rate of 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. And that's where the phrase flatten the curve comes in, says UC San Diego health economists, Jeff Clemens.

Speaker 3: 01:36 So one way to think about the health system is that it's there to me 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 the storm,

Speaker 1: 01:52 but sometimes when it storms, those drains aren't able to manage all the rain and that leads to damaging floods. Now picture of what could happen when a surge of patients check into doctor's offices across the country. Remember we're talking exponential numbers.

Speaker 3: 02:08 The social distancing concept is meant to kind of spread out that flow of patients in a way to try to at least mitigate the extent to which the system is overwhelmed.

Speaker 1: 02:18 Countries around the world are implementing social distancing measures like quarantine in order to reduce the flow of patients into the healthcare system. In Italy. Lessons have already been learned there. Last week, nearly 400 people died in just one day. Manu, Ella Rafa tell Lou is a scientist at UC San Diego who's also from Italy. So these was just, I seen the tip of the iceberg. The disease has been spreading and especially started in Northern Italy that I would like to highlight that this is the best care in the country and one of the best it'll care system in the world. But Rafa telly says some people didn't take seriously how contagious the virus is. So the disease spread

Speaker 4: 02:59 in the CTOs bear Gomorrah now, which is a city, a city near Milan, they started quarantine a little later than other cities and this one week delay for the lockdown really cost to them a lot. You know, the entire newspaper is basically dedicated to people who die.

Speaker 1: 03:17 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 lifesaving supplies that are running out like ventilators, which help people breathe. And economist Jeffrey Clemon says in the United States, the hospital system could easily get overwhelmed as well.

Speaker 4: 03:37 The system as a whole, you know, has roughly 1 million, 100,000 beds. Our intensive care unit

Speaker 1: 03:47 and Rafa tele says it's important for people to think about who needs those beds. The most folks in the population who might get the most severe case of Corona virus

Speaker 4: 03:57 parents, our grandparents, our neighbors, and and so we need to do this even if we are healthy and young for them.

Speaker 1: 04:09 And remember, flattening the curve isn't about panicking. It's about keeping a safe distance so we can slow down the rate of the virus. Shalina Celani K PBS news journey me is KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina Chet Lani Shalina welcome. Hi. Glad to be here. But curve you're talking about is the number of people who test positive for coven 19 do we know what percentage of people who test positive will ultimately need hospitalization? Yeah, so it's a moving range of numbers. But I looked at a New York times article last week, which cited projections from the centers for disease control. That said it could be anywhere from 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States that require hospitalization. And that's really significant because if you recall from the feature, I mentioned that in the United States right now we have only around 1 million hospital beds and a 10th of those are for intensive care unit beds.

Speaker 1: 05:07 So you know, that's also not to mention the fact that there are other people who don't have Corona virus who will need to be going to the hospital for other reasons. Now we hear a lot about you, we need to do more testing, but if there's more testing done, the curve is likely to go up. So how does more testing fit in with flattening the curve? Yeah. So when you're thinking about flattening the curve, it's really about the number of cases that will be overwhelming the healthcare system at a given point in time. So yes, if there is more testing, the number of cases will naturally go up because we will be collecting more numbers on the on cases. But it's, when it comes to flattening the curve, it's really about social distancing because if there's no social distancing, even if we're doing testing, those numbers are going to go up regardless because this is an extremely contagious, the doubling rate for, um, the number of cases in the United States is every three to four days.

Speaker 1: 06:03 Um, Bonnie Kaiser, the medical anthropologist in the feature gave a really good metaphor for that. You know, if you take a drop of water and you double it every minute and an hour, you'll feel a baseball stadium. Think about that with the numbers of people. The doubling rate for this is, you know, every three to four days. And so, um, you know, testing is really the, the next step in flowing in, reducing the flow. The, the number of cases of the virus. You know, that's once we've got people sort of quarantine and, and in their distance from other people, then the testing comes in so that we can make sure that we're isolating people so that there's not a relapse in the virus. Now, Italy has been shutting down public exposure for weeks now with a near total shutdown of the nation last week. So how did their curve get out of control?

Speaker 1: 06:52 It got out of control kind of the same way. Our curve is getting out of control. Um, I spoke to UCC, UC San Diego scientist Moto LRF fatale and she has ties to Italy. And she was saying that the way this all kind of got out of hand is that there were actually some politicians who said, Hey, this is not that big of a deal. I'm minimizing the risks and said, go out and, you know, enjoy your happy hours. Meanwhile, um, people didn't realize that the, that this is actually very contagious. And so as I mentioned, you know, for every one person there could be two or three other people at the same time who get the disease. And so very quickly it got out of hand and now the hospital systems over there are very overwhelmed. Um, and one thing I want to mention, I, you know, I said that I'm drawing similarities to the United States.

Speaker 1: 07:38 This is, you know, pretty similar to what's been happening here in terms of, uh, you know, people not believing that this is actually a real threat. Um, and there was actually an NPR poll that came out today that showed that, you know, over 50% of Americans still just over 50% still don't really believe this is that serious. But then we have South Korea and Singapore, we hear that they've been successful in being able to flatten the curve of covert 19. How did they do it? Yes. So they have been successful and that's because they took it seriously right from the beginning. Um, one thing I want to mention before I like talk about some of the things that they did is that South Korea and Singapore democratic, um, governments and I think there's a lot of misconception going around that it takes sort of an authoritarian regime to put in place these types of measures.

Speaker 1: 08:29 That's not actually true. We're seeing from South Korea and from countries like Singapore that you can very easily do that within a democratic government. And some of the things that they have done is first off they have been testing, they have been going everywhere they can to make sure that they are testing people and then isolating the people who come up positive. So for a comparison around in the United States, estimates are that around 25,000 tests have been conducted across the United States. A rough estimate in South Korea, it's about 15,000 to 20,000 a day. So they have really, um, embraced testing and they even have some really cool innovations like drive throughs that we're now thinking about trying to adopt here where people can just go and get tested and have that sort of, um, away. What are hospitals in California doing to gear up in case the curve doesn't flatten fast enough and they're hit with an onslaught of patients.

Speaker 1: 09:30 So I looked at a Vox news article from yesterday that, uh, interviewed a number of different hospital systems around the country and they mentioned one LA hospital system that said, you know, they have ventilators for current patients and then, you know, for a potential surge of patients. But if it does become overwhelming that for example, that hospital says that they're going to have to look outward to, um, external, federal or, uh, you know, state resources in order to pad the number of patients that will be coming in. And at the same time, you might have been seeing some emails coming into your inbox about, um, uh, medical visits that you have that may not be, uh, deemed necessary. Well, that's another move that medical facilities are doing right now. They're saying, you know, if you don't have something that's that urgent, maybe don't come into the hospital system right now to reduce the influx of pressure that's on the hospital system. So that's a couple of things that, um, California hospitals are doing to get prepared. I've been speaking with KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina Chut Lani Shelina. Thank you. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.