The World Health Organization recently declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will go through the population and many of us will get it before a vaccine is developed. This doesn’t mean that there will be tens of millions dead. For most age groups, the virus has a low mortality rate.
By making small personal sacrifices, however, we can make sure the number of people succumbing to the disease is as low as possible. This includes making sure the spread is as slow we can make it. It would be easier on our collective psyche to get it over and done with, but a slow contagion is key to not overwhelm the health system.
This is what happened in Lombardy, the Italian region where Milan is. Despite an excellent health system in the region, the exponential increase in cases was too much and the Italian government opted for a total lockdown of the country. The goal is to “Flatten The Curve", a motto that has become popular online, making sure the peak of the disease is within manageable bounds for the healthcare system.
So why should we work to flatten the curve? The curve represents the number of new cases over time. The higher the number of cases on any given day, the sharper the curve will appear. Not all of the new cases will require medical intervention, but if the spread is rapid (or the curve is sharp), the number of cases that require hospitalization can exceed the number of available beds in medical facilities.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security reports there are 46,500 intensive care unit beds available in the United States, given that the people currently in ICU can be safely relocated. There are about 160,000 ventilators available in hospitals and government stockpiles. A moderate outbreak would see 200,000 Americans need those beds at any one time. A severe outbreak would instead see around 2.9 million people needing care.
The spread of the disease needs to be as gradual as possible to save the greatest number of lives. The current advice is to take hygiene seriously (wash your hands), to avoid unnecessary trips and large gatherings, working from home, self-quarantine of sick, avoiding crowds, etc. Not everyone will be able to do all of these measures, especially those who can’t work remotely or don’t have access to sick pay, so the current advice is to do as much as you can on a personal level to mitigate the spread of the virus.