A novel coronavirus, named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. (Photo Courtesy/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

We are four days into a national emergency declared by President Donald Trump in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this writing, there are 4,527 confirmed cases in the United States, 121 confirmed cases in Georgia and three confirmed cases in Clarke County. Estimates suggest the number of cases is doubling approximately every 6.4 days. In other words, the disease is spreading at an exponential rate.

It has become clear we are at the tipping point: we must do everything in our power to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 or our country risks a drastic increase in morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death) as a result. There is something critically important you can do — starting immediately — to help slow the outbreak’s progression.

You may have heard the term “flattening the curve.” The graph below describes that idea. The x-axis represents the number of days since the first case of a disease (e.g., COVID-19) and the y-axis represents the daily number of cases. There are two potential trajectories: the first is a significant, early spike in cases; the other, a slower, flatter curve.

Flattening the curve

Spreading out cases (flattening the curve) could protect the health care system from becoming overwhelmed. This is based on a graph by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on pandemic influenza.

The first scenario would overwhelm our health care system. Following this trajectory, hospitals would not have enough beds, ventilators, staff and/or personal protective equipment (PPE) to handle a large volume of sick patients. This scenario would be similar to the current crisis in Italy. The second trajectory represents a slower, more gradual influx of sick patients: a flattening of the curve. Although scenario two would by no means prevent all mortality associated with the disease, it would give health care workers a better opportunity to tend to patients without being incredibly overwhelmed.

How do we flatten the curve? We achieve it through social distancing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” We can achieve this in a very simple way: by staying home and away from others.

Young adults are especially critical to the success of flattening the curve. Although younger people, especially those in their teens and 20s, do not seem to get as sick as older adults, they can still spread the virus. That means even if you feel well, you could still have coronavirus and unknowingly spread it to your friends, parents, grandparents, the immunocompromised, the elderly. And they could die.

By staying home, every single individual practicing social distancing can help flatten the curve and even save lives. I have an obligation to my family, my community, my friends and my parents to inconvenience myself in attempting to stay healthy. You do too. Cancel your plans. Stay home. Follow evolving federal, state and local guidance. Help those most vulnerable to coronavirus by doing whatever you can to protect them.

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