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Flatten the curve: How one chart became a rallying cry against coronavirus

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A bit of geeky jargon has become a rallying cry in the fight against the novel coronavirus, as people around the world try to “flatten the curve” by doing the little things necessary to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The term comes from public health experts, but it’s gone viral amid the coronavirus outbreak thanks to a few widely-shared infographics.

The “curve” refers to something called an epi curve, a graph line that charts the rise, peak and fall of existing infections over time.

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The “flatten the curve” concept is simple: if everyone gets sick at the same time, hospitals will be overwhelmed and people will die without treatment. However, if everyone does what they can to avoid spreading the virus and “flatten” the infection numbers on any given day, hospitals will have a better chance of giving all patients the help they need over a longer period of time.

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You might think of it as the difference between peak rush hour traffic on a Friday and flattened-out traffic patterns on a Sunday afternoon. One situation can be madness, while the other is more manageable.

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“There is a slower rate of cases over time so that the hospital systems can deal with that more efficiently, instead of being overwhelmed all at once,” said Dr. Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and an influenza virologist at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology.

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The best way to flatten the curve is to wash your hands, avoid large crowds and practice social distancing, public health officials have repeatedly said.

“What we need to do is flatten that down,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a White House briefing on Tuesday. “You do that with trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”

More than 127,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 worldwide since the outbreak started in late December. The disease has killed more than 4,700 people, including one in Canada.

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“Flattening the curve keeps society going,” Dr. Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University, told the New York Times. He explained that hospitals simply don’t have enough beds or ventilators to treat a large percentage of a given country’s population all at once, so the best thing people can do is wash their hands and hopefully slow the surge down.

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“Understanding and managing surge is an important part of preparedness,”  he said.

Harris tweeted an image of the curve on Feb. 28 and the infographic quickly went viral.

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The image shows two curves depicting the potential number of cases at a given time. One is a tall curve that surpasses the healthcare system’s capacity, represented by a dotted line. Another hill is shorter, wider and within the healthcare system’s capacity to respond. The latter hill is possible if society embraces preventive measures, Harris said.

China appears to have flattened its curve after imposing severe lockdowns on the outbreak’s epicentre, Wuhan, and the surrounding area. The country’s outbreak peaked in late January and February, but new cases shrank to just 15 on Wednesday.

“If you think of it from the virus’ perspective, it would like to spread quickly and to as many people as possible, so it wants a rapid outbreak,” said Jodie Dionne-Odon, an assistant professor specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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“The reason to flatten out the curve is really to give us time to respond to a rapidly worsening outbreak,” she told NBC News.

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“You can be the best hospital in New York or Singapore … and eventually your capacity will be breached and then you’ve got people being ventilated in corridors,” added Dale Fisher, chairman of the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

“It is so important for people to understand.”

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Health experts, celebrities, activists and everyday people have started promoting coronavirus preparedness under the hashtag #FlattentheCurve on social media.

“We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis and we must unite behind experts and science,” climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote in a Twitter thread with the hashtag on Wednesday. She urged her followers to take their long-running Friday climate protests into the digital world, rather than rallying in large groups as they have in the past.

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“Keep your numbers low but your spirits high and let’s take one week at a time,” she wrote.

“Be understanding. Be kind,” tweeted Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. “We’re in this together.”

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The new coronavirus was first identified in Hubei province, China, in December 2019 and spread rapidly. While the outbreak has begun to level off in China, it seems the virus has found a foothold in a number of countries around the world, and it continues to spread.

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing  very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

Visit full COVID-19 coverage on Global News.

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With files from Global News reporter Leslie Young and The Associated Press