In the immediate aftermath of the first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) being confirmed in the U.S., life felt uneasy and uncertain, but not overwhelmingly disrupted. Schools, churches, bars and restaurants remained open, and although some companies had floated the idea of instituting work-from-home precautions, many offices remained open, even in the face of a novel virus outbreak that the World Health Organization would imminently declare a global pandemic.
As the number of confirmed cases of the virus crept upwards, experts appealed to the public to practice normal flu season precautions like increased hand-washing, and also introduced a number of new protocols, like “social distancing,” into the health lexicon.
Social distancing isn’t just about keeping you healthy: When a viral outbreak is particularly severe, reduced contact can also help to stem the spread of transmission before infected individuals begin showing symptoms. If an asymptomatic carrier of the virus hangs out at a crowded bar, for example, they run the risk of infecting dozens of others in close proximity, who could then go on to spread the virus at an exponential rate all over town. By the week of March 10, elected officials in most major cities had seen the writing on the wall and instituted mandatory curfews and shutdowns of most non-essential gathering spaces, including bars and restaurants.
But in addition to reducing cases of infection, social distancing also works to slow the rate at which disease spreads in the first place — a critical mitigation tactic that experts say is necessary to ensure that the health system isn’t overwhelmed by thousands of sick patients at once. The concept of slowing the rate of transmission is being called colloquially as “flattening the curve.” This flattening of the curve refers to the rate of new coronavirus patients that will grow exponentially, on a sharp incline, if the U.S. is to follow in the footsteps of hard-hit countries like China, Italy and Spain without taking immediate action.
The importance of social distancing was broken down into digestible terms in a now-viral Twitter thread by Tina Nguyen, a Politico reporter. In the thread, Nguyen attached screenshots of a text exchange in which a friend who researches public health for a large NGO warned that the week of March 14 was likely a pivotal one in terms of slowing the rate of infection through social distancing, particularly because the rate of contagious, unidentified carriers is so high presently.
I have a very close friend who’s a researcher studying public health at a major NGO, and he told me that this was THE week to practice as much social distancing as possible, even if you don’t have to go to work.— Tina Nguyen (@tina_nguyen) March 14, 2020
I asked him to explain why. Sharing his answers w/ permission (1/x)
According to the CDC, coronavirus symptoms take between 2 to 14 days to manifest after exposure — meaning that an infected individual might not even realize that they’re sick at first, making them more likely to expose other, more vulnerable members of the population to the virus. With as many as 20 to 60 percent of American adults poised to contract COVID-19, according to some estimates, slowing that rate of infection will be critical in order to give medical professionals a fighting chance to care for anyone sick. The alternative way this could go is not a bright picture: hospitals could end up so overwhelmed by new patients that they’re forced to turn individuals away, or a shortage of resources, like ventilators, that leaves sick people vulnerable.
Even in spite of the mandatory closures and curfews currently being forced upon bars, concert venues, performance spaces and restaurants across the country, people who want to gather will still find a way to do so. In order to slow the spread of coronavirus and give medical professionals a fighting chance, the decision to stay home and try to help “flatten the curve” will have to make the choice for themselves; let’s hope they choose wisely.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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