Washing Hands, Staying Home, and Flattening the Curve with COVID-19 Explained

  • Experts contend that staying home and practicing social distancing are key to “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases.
  • Flattening the curve refers to slowing the number of new cases so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed at any one time.
  • Many city and state governments have closed nonessential businesses and limited group gatherings.

The world has drastically changed in a matter of weeks, leaving many people wondering how the latest developments regarding the new coronavirus will impact their lives.

Long story short: Right now, we’re staying at home and washing our hands a lot.

It’s a marked change to those carefree months of early 2020 when we were hanging out, shaking hands, hugging, and giving each other small daily gestures to know we’re connected and loved.

But we all live in a different world now.

The changes came fast: President Donald Trump went from downplaying the severity of the situation to declaring a national state of emergency on Mar. 11.

Just over a period of days, major metropolitan areas like New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area asked people to stay home or issued shelter-in-place orders. Then came full state orders like in New York, California, and Illinois.

Similar orders are being enacted across the globe, leaving billions of people to bunker down at home until further notice.

Dr. Nancy Gin, executive vice president of quality and chief quality officer for the Permanente Federation, said we’re currently living in “extraordinary times” and the biggest issue facing us is what could happen if everyone became sick at the same time.

The goal right now, Gin said, is “flattening the curve” or spreading the rate of transmission out at a rate our healthcare infrastructure can handle.

Limiting interactions between one another gives the virus fewer chances to change hands.

“People need to realize their actions now determine how this will affect the community,” Gin told Healthline. “The thing for me is that as a society, it is our duty to look after people at higher risk and protect them.”

Because this type of coronavirus has never been seen before in humans, no one has developed antibodies to protect themselves. “This is one we really need to respect,” Gin said.

But the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, didn’t always get that kind of respect, especially from some lawmakers in the United States, despite the virus’ demonstrated abilities to grind places to a halt.

Many politicians initially downplayed the crisis

Earlier this month, several conservative lawmakers told people not to worry about the new coronavirus, as democratic leaders were actively encouraging people to practice good hygiene and avoid other people at all costs.

“For crying out loud, go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, said on Mar. 16th.

The next day, he’d order all dine-in restaurants, bars, and casinos to close — orders that have become increasingly common since more public health officials began sounding the horns.

Congressman Devin Nunes of California changed his stance about encouraging people to go to restaurants, but to use the drive-thru or get takeout.

President Trump also initially downplayed how the virus would impact our daily lives, but then encouraged people to limit gatherings to 10 people, resulting in having to cancel his own campaign rallies.

Now, conservative states like Texas are canceling elective surgeries and the first senator to test positive is Rand Paul, a conservative who has since put himself in quarantine after extensive travel and meetings with others in his party.

The change in tone in such a short period of time has left many people confused as to what’s allowed, what isn’t, and why.

Politics aside, those working in the U.S. healthcare system say it’s not built to meet a dam-busting rush of infections that require extensive resources.

That’s why, instead of going to the hospital later, they want you to stay away now.

Dr. Scott Kaiser, a board certified family medicine physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California — a state under stay-at-home orders — says public health precautions like practicing social distancing (staying 6 feet away from anyone you’re not living with) are “not panic but prudence.”

That’s because of the way the coronavirus spreads: mainly person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another.

Kaiser said our current understanding of the coronavirus is that respiratory droplets can be spread when a person who has it coughs and another person inhales the droplets, along with them lingering on shared surfaces for days at a time.

“We are at a critical juncture where observing these guidelines can significantly reduce the spread of the virus,” Kaiser told Healthline. “If we have any chance of preventing the type of catastrophic situation where the health system is overwhelmed — as we’ve seen in Northern Italy — we must all play our part now to reduce the spread of this virus.”

What we’re doing now

So gyms, nightclubs, and bars — all places where there’s often heavy breathing and people sharing different surfaces — are pretty much canceled for a while. The same goes for concerts, sports, and any other way humans gather to share an experience. And bodily fluids.

Staying at home may sound like an introvert’s dream, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition for the more social among us.

Some people continue to crowd beaches or linger around public spaces when orders limit trips outside, but others are taking the public health crisis seriously by staying at home and limiting their contact with others to only the essentials.

Workplaces across the globe immediately looked into what parts of their operations could be done remotely, while others — like nonessential retail outlets, bars, night clubs, and other places where large groups could accumulate — shuttered entirely, either by order or choice.

Others are adapting, including companies like GrubHub that are scaling back fees to help local restaurants get food to people near them or Hollywood pushing up streaming dates to give us something new to watch and bond over while we band together — but separately.

As more of us live under orders to stay home, COVID-19 has fewer opportunities to spread as healthcare systems are stretched beyond their capacity.

To decrease that burden, healthcare officials across the globe are encouraging people to stay home, unless it’s for work deemed essential to a functioning society, to shop for food or medicine, or just to get some exercise.

Dr. Julia Blank practices family medicine at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She said because symptoms of COVID-19 don’t always show up in everyone, seemingly healthy people can go about their lives, spreading a disease that’s especially dangerous to older adults and people with other underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and people in various immunocompromised states.

That means those of us at varying stages of infection can’t risk spreading it to people at bars, theaters, dine-in restaurants, or even dinner parties.

Blank says our collective goal is to slow the spread of the virus so that it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system with a huge influx of very sick people who require more resources — ICU beds, ventilator support, etc. — than are available.

“This means what we do now, as far as small everyday choices,” Blank told Healthline, “is extremely important in helping to reduce or at least slow the spread of COVID-19.”

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