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What does it mean to flatten the COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) curve? Earlier this week I began to see the hashtag #flattenthecurve, so I began to ask people and patients and families what they thought that hashtag meant. The number of answers I got made it clear that we need to have a better understanding of this concept. So in order to understand the concept of flattening the curve, we probably first need to talk about what the curve actually is.
The curve represents a graph that plots the total number of COVID-19 cases in a given city or state or country over time. If you recall from middle school math class, the X or horizontal axis represents time and the Y or vertical axis represents the total number of cases. The plot or curve for COVID-19 like most other viral illnesses has a bell shape, meaning that the number of cases increases over time, then it reaches a peak before finally decreasing. The total number of cases is the height of the curve and the length of time that people are infected is again the horizontal or X axis and both of them are dependent upon the number of infected people and the ease with which the infection is transmitted from person to person.
Flattening the curve simply means decreasing the height of the curve (meaning the total number of cases) and/or decreasing the number of new infections, which means that by controlling the number of new infections, we can decrease the length of time that new infections are identified and decrease the number of people who could potentially transmit the infection to people who are currently healthy. Hand washing, social distancing, self isolation, quarantine of patients with known infections all help to decrease the number of new cases or flatten this curve.
Flattening the curve is the difference between 5 million cases or 500,000 cases. Flattening the curve is the difference between 500,000 deaths and 50,000 deaths, and flattening the curve is the difference between a pandemic that lasts 12 months and one that lasts for only six months. All of us can do our part to help flatten the curve, to decrease the number of infections, and to shorten the length of time that this pandemic affects our communities.