What Does “Flatten the Curve” Mean?

You hear and see this phrase everywhere during this COVID-19 outbreak but what exactly does it mean? “Flattening the curve” refers to the idea of slowing the spread of a virus so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time. This helps hospitals deal with capacity issues and is the main reason as to why social distancing has been mandated by many countries and states. Here's the graph that shows this. 

The curve that is discussed refers to the projected number of people who is predicted to contract COVID-19. It could be a steep curve, in which the virus spreads exponentially and currently, that is the shape that the coronavirus outbreak has taken. The faster the infection curve rises, the quicker the local health care system gets overloaded beyond its capacity to treat people. As we're seeing in Italy, more and more new patients may be forced to go without ICU beds, and more and more hospitals may run out of the basic supplies they need to respond to the outbreak. As a result, the curve grows steeper as more patients are in need of treatment in the same short period of time.

Flattening the curve doesn’t mean that less people will contract the virus; it simply means that the people who do contract the virus will contract over a longer period of time rather than in a short period. In this way, health care systems aren’t overwhelmed and can properly treat the patients without worrying about over capacity. The curve is thus flattened because the distribution of cases is less steep and more spread out.Chinese man with medical maskSocial distancing plays a large role in flattening the curve because by minimizing contact with others, there is less of a chance that the virus will pass between people. Even if you do not display any symptoms, it is much better to stay home and only go out for essential activities because the virus can still live on in someone despite them not being physically ill. By isolating oneself at home and practicing social distancing, there are fewer cases that can occur within that short period of time, allowing for the peak of the curve to be brought lower and lower over time.

While practicing social distancing can be frustrating as human beings are meant to be social, it is in the best interests of public health efforts and the lives of others to remain home. By minimizing contact with other people, especially in large groups, the curve can be flattened and this pandemic can be fought faster.