Everyone can help flatten the curve to fight COVID-19; here's what the term means.

By Claire Gillespie
March 13, 2020
Advertisement

As people around the world try to understand and protect themselves from the coronavirus COVID-19, a simple chart graph has gone viral—and it’s been praised for shedding some light on the scale and speed of the outbreak.

The "flattening the curve" chart illustrates the wave of new coronavirus cases expected to hit. A high curve means the virus is spreading quickly; some people won’t get the medical care they need, and the number of deaths is likely to increase. A low curve means coronavirus is spreading slowly, which gives doctors the time and resources to treat more people (and hopefully save more lives). 

Credit: Alex Sandoval

What does "flatten the curve" mean, exactly? Medical professionals and public health experts are being called on to help flatten the curve in the chart graph to stagger the rate of coronavirus cases, so hospitals will be able to treat everyone who gets it or needs to be tested.

The chart was shared by Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, on Twitter. Harris took a graphic originally created by journalist Rosamund Pearce, which was based on another chart in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paper.

Harris drew a dotted line onto the chart, showing that the smoothness of the curve could be the difference between treating the disease and health care providers struggling to cope with the demand for help. It summarizes the importance of taking measures to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"The ideal goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic is to completely halt the spread. But merely slowing it—mitigation—is critical," Harris told The New York Times.

If the coronavirus is passed on too quickly and too many people become infected at one time, the resources available to fight it could quickly become overwhelmed. By staggering the number of COVID-19 cases over a longer period of time, everyone who becomes infected can have better access to care.

While flattening the curve may not be able to reduce the number of people who get infected with COVID-19, it ensures that the number of people dealing with it at any one time is limited. On the other hand, if the disease is allowed to progress at its natural pace, the curve on the graph would turn into a spike, causing massive issues for health professionals who are already stretched to their limits.

The viral graphic has been adapted and shared widely online in various different forms. One animation, posted on Twitter by UK microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, calls out lax public attitudes to the outbreak. If you want to help flatten the curve, you have to be vigilant about taking preventative measures, like proper handwashing and social isolation.

Ultimately, what flattening the curve does is remind us what the CDC and World Health Organization have been saying for months: wash your hands (frequently and properly), catch coughs and sneezes in tissues, and stay home if you’re sick. You might think these measures are simply putting off the inevitable, but they’ll make the world of difference to the bigger picture.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter