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By Allan J. Bassler
Publisher 

What I Understand So Far

What 'Flatten the Curve' Means

 
Series: Coronavirus | Story 12

Last updated 4/1/2020 at 4:50pm

Chart courtesy of Johannes Kalliauer / CC BY-SA 4.0, found at livescience.com

This chart illustrates what experts mean when they say that we need to "flatten the curve." The red area indicates the rapid increase in the number of coronavirus infections if no precautions are taken. The lower curve to the right indicates the same number of cases, but spread out over time due to precautions taken, such as social distancing. The dotted line indicates the capacity of the medical system. Note that social distancing helps keep the number of cases below the maximum health care system capacity.

I was smart enough to get out of graduate school alive, but I've never been one with a quick wit. So it often takes me a while to puzzle through things.

With the flood of information coming out about the coronavirus and the various reactions, I often hear and listen but don't comprehend. Then, hours or days later, I have an "aha!"moment and everything falls into place and makes sense.

When things do fall into place, suddenly certain things become clear and they make sense. Being a journalist, when things make sense to me, I feel a compulsion to share my understanding with others.

So, here are a few things that I understand about this virus and its spread.

Note that I'm not a disease or medical expert. What I convey to you here is a synthesis of multiple reports that I've heard from multiple reliable sources, such as NPR, the Washington Post, 538 blog, the New York Times and other trustworthy, professional news sources.

If I get anything wrong, please send me an email. I'll be happy to provide correct information.

Coronavirus vs. COVID-19

The official name for the coronavirus is "novel coronavirus" because it is new with "novel" being used in its meaning of "new," not "work of fiction." There are other variations of the coronavirus, but this one is new.

COVID-19 is the name for the disease or health condition caused by the novel coronavirus. It's an abbreviation, which is why we put it in all capitals. It stands for:

CO = Corona

VI = Virus

D = Disease

19 = Discovered in 2019

This is apparently in conformance with standard medical conventions for naming viruses and the diseases that they cause.

Flattening the curve

All this social distancing and shutting down of businesses has the intent of "flattening the curve." What does that mean? It means that the experts want us to avoid personal contact so we don't spread the coronavirus to each other rapidly and uncontrollably. If we spread the virus too fast, a large number of people will get sick in a short period of time. Sick people go to the hospital, an a large spike in the number of sick people could easily overwhelm hospital resources.

Obviously, if a hospital only has, say 100 beds and 200 very sick people show up in the emergency department in one week, there's a serious problem.

The "flatten" part is an attempt to squash down the spike in the number of sick people occuring in a short period of time. If the spike can be squashed down, or made smaller, it means that fewer people have gotten sick. Fewer people getting sick means fewer people showing up at the emergency department. And that means that the hospital can handle what is coming in.

In the case of the hospital with 100 beds, "flattening the curve" means that instead of 200 sick people showing up in one week, perhaps only 50 show up. While the hospital is still going to be a busy place, it can handle that level of patients. In short, 200 patients = overwhelmed system and where do we put all these sick people? while 50 patients = We're crazy busy, but we can handle this and we have beds for everyone.

The same idea applies to all the various medical supplies needed to treat coronavirus patients. If a hospital only has 25 ventilators but 100 patients need one, then there's a serious problem. Flattening the curve to keep the number of ventilator patients under 25 helps the hospital provide every patient with the care that he or she needs.

 

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