COVID-19: What does it mean to ‘flatten the curve’?

March 27, 2020 Providence Health Team

Flattening the curve can help slow the spread of disease and help our health systems from becoming overwhelmed.

  • Having too many people sick at once can prevent critical care from getting to those who need it most.
  • Physical distancing is one of the most important steps we can take to flatten the curve.

[4 MIN READ]

In the weeks since coronavirus (COVID-19) became the major headline in the U.S. and across the world, there’s one phrase that keeps appearing across articles and social media channels: We need to “flatten the curve.”

Experts say this process can not only help improve our country’s response to the pandemic, it can also save lives.  

What does “flatten the curve” mean?

The goal of flattening the curve is to slow down COVID-19 infections, rather than having the cases all peak at once.

This graphic adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visualizes the idea of slowing the spread or flattening the curve of a pandemic. The dark purple curve shows a disease that is spreading fast, while the striped curve shows one spreading slowly.

Source: Qualls N, Levitt A, Kanade N, et al. Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza — United States, 2017. MMWR Recomm Rep 2017;66(No. RR-1):1–34. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.rr6601a1external icon.

Dr. Qualls, who was involved in creating the original pandemic graph illustrated above, notes that it is “Important to remember that #Covid-19 epidemic control measures may only delay cases, not prevent. However, this helps limit surge and gives hospitals time to prepare and manage.”

Why is it important to flatten the curve?

Slowing down the rate of COVID-19 infections, or flattening the curve, gives hospitals, doctors, schools and other resources time to respond to the outbreak. It also gives researchers more time to develop treatments and vaccines.

Having more people sick at one time puts more strain on our health care system. Stretching these resources out over time, rather than using them all up at once, means we can treat more people and ultimately save lives.

What can I do to help flatten the curve?

COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States. However, doctors and scientists believe COVID-19 is spread mainly from person-to-person. That is, when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  Learn more from the CDC.

The key goal in flattening the curve is to slow the spread of disease, which means taking steps to protect yourself and people in your community from becoming infected.

Slowing down infection rates

Social (physical) distancing: The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus. There are a number of steps we can all take to protect ourselves and our loved ones. This CDC page, How to Protect Yourself, explains what each of us can do. One step is to put physical distance between yourself and other people, especially if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This has come to be known as social distancing, which the CDC describes as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Another important step is to avoid contact with people who are sick, and with people who are at higher risk for severe illness, including COVID-19. This includes people age 65 and older, as well as anyone who may have a serious underlying health condition, such as diabetes or lung disease.

Many people, especially when encouraged by their local authorities, are also choosing to stay home as much as possible to avoid in-person interaction with anyone outside the home. Although it may be difficult to stay home and cancel events, taking these steps will ultimately slow the spread of COVID-19 and help flatten the curve faster, which means our healthcare system can better take care of people who need care now.

Wash your hands often: Clean hands are an essential part of stopping the spread of COVID-19. Be sure to wash them with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. It is especially important to do this after being in a public place or after coughing or sneezing. Make sure you also avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Cover your face when you sneeze or cough: If you’re sneezing and coughing, be sure to cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Always throw the tissue away immediately after and wash your hands thoroughly.

Keep your home and car clean: Make sure to disinfect high-traffic surfaces every day. This includes faucets, sinks, toilets, keyboards, phones, desks, countertops, doorknobs, light switches and handles. Use a household disinfectant that has been registered by the EPA

If you choose to get groceries, take-out food, medicines or get gas in your car, keep disinfectant wipes handy and be sure to wipe down surfaces. Also, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly when you get home or after you receive a delivery.

Stay home if you’re sick

Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care. Learn what to do if you are sick.

Contact your medical provider if you are showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19.

You can also get up-to-date information from your state’s department of public health:

Alaska

California

Montana

New Mexico

Oregon

Texas

Washington

What does it mean to “flatten the curve” and why is it important? Learn more our efforts at our corornavirus resource hub

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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