As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, so have the number of models predicting the total number of deaths that the disease will cause. Each new model produces a slew of fresh headlines, and these typically enjoy a brief moment in Twitter’s trending section.
While these numbers certainly get people’s attention, they are often dismissed as fear-mongering.
Many of the most dire people predict what would happen if no preventative measures were taken. A widely-cited study out of London’s Imperial College found that 2.2 million Americans could die from the coronavirus. The caveat, however, is that the study was based on what would happen without mitigation.
Since people in the United States are social distancing in an attempt to flatten the curve, that won’t happen in our country, right? Not exactly.
Current social distancing measures may flatten the curve, but that doesn’t mean they can reverse the curve quickly. A full lockdown, however, could not only save lives, but also contain the coronavirus much quicker than current measures.
It is true that current measures taken have slowed the spread, but the numbers continue to rise. And until harsher restrictions are enacted, that will continue to be the case.
The grim reality of the idea behind simply flattening the curve is that it assumes herd immunity, meaning the number of daily infections will only peak when so many people have immunity from the coronavirus due to a vaccine or other exposure. And with a vaccine at least 18 months away, the latter is more likely. Herd immunity works when 40-95% of the population is immune, which explains the variation of numbers found in the widely-cited models.
This is why flattening the curve could make the coronavirus crisis last longer.
In a New York Times model, three scenarios are shown. One with no control measures peaks in late May with 500,000 new cases each day. One with some control measures peaks around the 4th of July with just under 300,000 new cases each day. And one that shows severe control measures spreads slowly but continues its growth into August.
If strict control measures would continue into August (and still not even peak at that point), then it is no wonder why many Americans are concerned that the cure might be worse than the disease.
With economists already predicting unemployment levels higher than the Great Depression and 24% of small businesses saying they would have to close permanently if COVID-19 restrictions continue for more than two months, this line of reasoning is understandable.
Even Monday’s Google Doodle depicts a traditional flattening of the curve, implying that the better we are at social distancing, the longer the crisis will take.
But this is all based on a dire premise –– one that we haven’t even seen in China, Italy or Spain. The ‘faster it rises, the faster it falls’ idea requires more people contracting and dying from the virus.
The curves in the Covid Act Now model show that a stay at home order would actually lengthen the course of the disease in Nebraska, with more hospitalizations in July than would occur with no action taken. However, this model also shows what would happen with an approach to lockdown similar to Wuhan, China. The most strict measures, it turns out, contain the virus faster than all other options. The virus could peak in the middle of April and disappear entirely by the middle of July, according to the model.
This is still a long time, but it would allow for late summer vacations and an NFL season, which are currently in peril.
Containing this virus will not be easy without extreme measures, but it is possible.
Temporarily closing even more businesses and forcing people to stay out of public spaces will be inconvenient. However, ridding ourselves of this virus quicker means that our economy can get back to work quicker. Small businesses can reopen in the summer instead of closing permanently.
And we’d save a ton of lives.
There is still a lot to be learned about this disease, and with an incubation period of around two weeks, it may take some time before we know the effectiveness of our current situation.
Yet, in this age of uncertainty, there still remains one fact that has yet to be disputed.
Before and after you write to your elected officials asking for more restrictions to end the virus sooner, you know what to do: wash your hands.
Brian Beach is a freshman journalism major. Reach him at email@example.com.