Story at a glance

  • Public health officials are encouraging Americans to practice social distancing in an attempt to “flatten the curve.”
  • The curve represents the number of people who contract COVID–19 over a period of time.
  • The U.S. health care system has a fixed capacity, so a flatter curve ensures that the demand for health care does not exceed its supply.

As health officials race to get the word out on how to slow the coronavirus outbreak, you’ve likely heard the phrase “flatten the curve” and perhaps even seen the multicolored graphs online. But what does that mean, and does it even work?

The curve everyone's talking about is a projection of the number of people who contract COVID–19 over a period of time. The graph represents the number of people who have the disease, on the y-axis (vertical), for each day since the first case, on the x-axis (horizontal). 

A high curve is created by a steep increase in the number of cases per day followed by a quick decrease. A flatter curve is created by a more gradual increase in the number of cases per day and a more gradual decrease. Over a long period of time, the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus might be about the same, but the difference is in the number of cases each day. 

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Why does this matter? 

Well, there is a limited number of doctors, hospitals, beds and even test kits in the United States. The nation’s health care system has a fixed capacity of the number of people it can treat per day, which is marked by a straight line on the graph. A higher curve would likely exceed that capacity, meaning that people would be left waiting for days to be seen and treated by medical professionals. The flatter the curve, the more likely it is to fall under that maximum capacity, allowing each patient access to the resources they need.


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So how do we flatten the curve?

That’s where social distancing comes in; it involves avoiding people or places where it’s possible to come in contact with germs by droplets, direct contact or surfaces that are potentially contaminated with the virus. For many, that means working from home and staying in rather than going out to bars or restaurants. But while not everyone can or will be able to do that, public health officials are saying it's our best shot at slowing down the transmission of the virus. 

Does flattening the curve work? 

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The theory can be traced back to a 2007 report on community strategies for an influenza pandemic. The goal was not to eradicate the disease, but to delay the peak of the outbreak, decompress the burden on hospitals and infrastructure and diminish the number of overall cases and the severity of the health impact. 


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In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked back at the lessons they learned from the response to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. The study found that social distancing measures worked to some extent, citing a decrease in virus transmission in Mexico after school closures and other such measures and less absent students at Georgia schools that shortened school days. 

Pharmaceutical responses to disease are vital in eradicating the disease itself, but they take time. Practicing social distancing to flatten the curve can buy that time without overwhelming our health care systems. 

Published on Mar 16, 2020