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Why We Social Distance - Flattening the Curve

April 2, 2020
Published in: COVID-19

Woman working on the computer while video conferencing with coworkers

Over the past few months, two phrases have crept into our vocabulary and every day conversations: Social Distancing and Flattening the Curve. What do they really mean? Why are they important? And what does one have to do with the other? Allison Baroco, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at Augusta Health, explains the concepts and answers the questions:

What is Social Distancing?

Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to reduce the spread of an illness. Examples of Social Distancing are keeping six feet between people, canceling and avoid gatherings of large groups, working for home, and closing schools to reduce the number of people in close contact with each other.

Why is Social Distancing important?
Will it really stop the spread of COVID-19?

Yes, Social Distancing is both important and yes, it can stop or slow down the spread of COVID-19.

Social Distancing is important for all of us. Staying at least six feet away from other people does lessen your chances of catching COVID-19 from the droplets spread by someone who is infected.

For those who are at a higher risk of complications, such as older adults or those with chronic conditions like heart disease or lung disease, being especially aware of social distancing and practicing it diligently is very important.

Social Distancing is not a new idea. It is at least 100 years old, and history has shown us that Social Distancing works. In 2007, two studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied how the Flu Pandemic of 1918 spread in different cities around the United States. They compared fatality rates, timing, and public health interventions. They learned that the death rates were about 50 percent lower in cities that implemented preventive measures, like Social Distancing, early on compared to those who implemented them later or not at all. The most effective cities simultaneously closed schools, churches, theaters and banned public gatherings. This slowed the spread of disease and allowed time for vaccine development, as well as lessening the strain on the hospitals.

Another important conclusion to keep in mind—the cities that felt secure because of their low death rates and relaxed their Social Distancing restrictions early experienced a new outbreak. The cities that kept the interventions in place did not experience the second wave of high death rates.

So Social Distancing did flatten the curve.

What does that mean to "flatten the curve"?

Flattening the Curve means using efforts like Social Distancing to slow the rate of COVID-19 infections so we can gain time—time to better assess the disease, time to allow hospitals and health systems to prepare and cope with a large number of sick patients. It's about spreading out the number of cases over time to allow for more hospital beds, more ventilators and equipment, and more providers to care for those who are sick.

Illustration showing the effect of flattening the curve

For a hospital, there is a great difference between treating 1000 patients in one week or treating 1000 patients over three months. So even if we have the same number of cases, spreading them out or flattening the curve, means there is a better chance there will be resources when needed.

We've probably all been in a fast food restaurant when a big tour bus pulls up and there is a sudden influx of customers to handle all at once. It's a much different situation than when several cars full of people arrive at the same time. It's basically the same concept—Social Distancing helps the health care system avoid the tour busses and have enough time to care for everyone when needed.

What else should we know about Social Distancing?

We should be grateful that here in Virginia, and especially in our local health district, we started Social Distancing efforts before we have experienced community spread. We learned those lessons from history and from observing the pandemic around the world and reacted promptly. That should have a positive impact on reducing the spread in our community.

We also realize that there are some negative impacts for Social Distancing—it is disappointing to cancel annual celebrations and family events and the economic impact is hard on many. By this time, we've all felt these experiences in some way. This is, though, the best way we can lessen the impact of a devastating illness on our community and to have the healthcare resources we need to help those who do become ill.

During flu season, we often say, "It's never too late to get your flu shot." Now, during this COVID-19 outbreak, we're saying, "It's never too late to start Social Distancing."

The Higher Purpose and Meaning in Social Distancing

Martha Sheridan, LCSW, Social Worker in Outpatient Behavioral Health, Augusta Health

We are all practicing social distancing at this time. Even people who are still going out to work are trying to maintain a social distance in accordance with all of the recommendations to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. We want to flatten the curve. We don't want to get sick and we certainly don't want to be the cause of someone else getting sick. It is interfering with almost every aspect of our lives. It is causing a host of problems for individuals, families, businesses, hospitals, and emergency services. It is interfering with celebrations: weddings, baby showers, graduations, and birthday celebrations.

One thing that can really help is to focus on the higher purpose or the meaning in doing all of this social distancing. We are doing more than flattening a curve; we are quite literally helping to save lives. Less people will get ill and because they are not walking around potentially spreading the virus, less people will get it from them. As a result less people will die. We are literally saving lives by following the best guidance that we have at this time.

The world has been hit with pandemics before when we didn't know nearly as much about protecting ourselves as we do now. Every single thing we can do to follow the advice from the experts in slowing the spread of the Coronavirus is helping ourselves and all of our neighbors. We are truly in this together. Great things can happen when lots of people are working together for the common good. We can all be proud to be a part of this worldwide effort.

Be Mindful and be safe.