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Monday, March 23, 2020

Flattening the Curve


What does it mean and how does it apply to you?

In the past few weeks, America has gone mad with Covid-19 coverage. Television pumps out updates every broadcast quarterhour of the news channels. Newspapers update their websites by the minute and publish the latest infection and death tolls each day.

One of the terms that’s become as hot as “onboarding” in business circles is “flattening the curve.” It has nothing to do with weight loss; it’s a graphical reference to the progression of the so-called pandemic.

We’ve all seen the charts on the conference room walls indicating the sales for a certain period achieved by a company. They generally go up or down with some hills and valleys in between. That’s kind of like the epidemic curve the talking heads are referring to when they talk about Covid-19.

On one side of the chart is a zero, indicating no cases of Covid-19. As time passes, the curve moves upward as the number of reported cases increases. Unchecked, the line looks like a space shuttle launch. When the experts talk about flattening the curve, they are talking about bringing the number of cases back down to zero as quickly as possible. To do that, you must stop the spread of the virus. To stop the spread is both easy and complicated.

Easy, meaning you keep sick people away from non-sick people. Complicated, meaning it’s not always possible. Some sick people are too sick to take care of themselves, so un-sick people must be exposed to them. It’s also not always apparent who has the virus. Some folks can have it and have mild or no symptoms. You don’t know whom you can trust.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, in most cases, those infected will show symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Those symptoms can appear quickly or take upwards of two weeks to emerge. The CDC is still learning about the illness.

The CDC has said that the best way to prevent the illness is not to be exposed to it. As of this writing, the CDC believes the virus spreads from person-to-person through close contact or coming into contact with respiratory droplets produced by coughs or sneezes either directly or with surfaces that are contaminated.

That’s why the talking heads are promoting their new favorite buzz words, “social distancing.” That simply means staying away from anyone you can avoid and keeping your hands to yourself, as kids in the ‘50s were taught. Lots of government entities are trying to make it easy by forcing public events, businesses and venues to close so people won’t gather and spread the illness. Such steps have been taken because our fiercely independent American spirit sometimes makes us hard-headed and skeptical of news reporting.

The mathematics involved are sterile and don’t care how independent you consider yourself. If the virus continues to spread, as it has shown it can, some estimates say America could face 100 million cases by May. That’s an alarming figure given the population of America is about 330 million.

Math geeks in the audience might be dying to learn that the R0 of Covid-19 is estimated at 2.3. That means a person who is infected with the virus can pass it to 2.3 other persons, on average, while they are contagious.

That’s why they recommend all the washing and avoiding people as long as the illness is spreading.

To flatten the curve, an infected person needs to avoid those 2.3 people mentioned above. In the best case, everybody would avoid infected people and the R0, or effective reproductive number, would fall below 1. That means the epidemic would stop spreading. When the virus stops spreading, it runs its course in the infected population, and the number of sick people drops. With no new infections, the curve hits zero again.

The current preoccupation with the Covid-19 is the first time a vast percentage of the American population has faced such a large public health menace. Not since yellow fever, the measles scares and the polio panic of the middle of the last century has there been such a public health issue like it. The lack of such experience speaks to the progress of the American health care system and the education of the public in all areas of health.

All the precautions you hear on radio, TV and here in 318 Forum are logical means of helping to flatten the epidemic curve back down to zero. And the sooner it gets there, the sooner America and the world can emerge from the Spring of Corona.


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