Flattening the curve of the coronavirus

In the current fast-moving, unprecedented situation, what we do today to stem the impact of COVID-19 can vastly affect what we will face tomorrow. Two epidemiologists discuss what we can do individually and as a society to slow the spread of the disease.

Front steps of Penn Nursing’s Fagin Hall in daylight
Penn Nursing’s Fagin Hall. 

“What really strikes me with this is how fast the situation is changing.” 

That’s how Alison Buttenheim, a public health researcher and behavioral epidemiologist at Penn’s School of Nursing, began a recent conversation about the coronavirus and COVID-19. The forum was a special episode of the podcast “Amplify Nursing,” which is supported by the Pinola Fund for Innovation in Nursing and was created by the School of Nursing’s Marion Leary, the director of innovation and Angelarosa DiDonato, associate program director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program

In the episode, Buttenheim and social epidemiologist Carolyn Cannuscio of Penn Medicine provide some up-to-date information about coronavirus and COVID-19, plus how to stop its spread and what to expect in the coming days and weeks. Below, a few takeaways. 

1. Social distancing is crucial. 

“Viruses thrive in groups of people that mingle and move to new places,” Cannuscio says. “We want to deprive an infected person or that virus the opportunity of encountering a susceptible host. Right now, we are a globe filled with susceptible hosts.” 

Beyond school closures and working from home, this means behavioral changes like avoiding shopping in crowded places, not going to see a show, not having a group of friends over, Buttenheim says. “That’s a big change in people’s daily lives, and it’s been hard for people to kind of absorb how important it is, but it’s really, really important.” 

Luckily, people are getting the message, she adds. “We’ve got to get people not to be in the same place at the same time. That’s what it’s going to take at this point—another phrase people are sick of hearing—to flatten the curve. That just means slow down, delay, or postpone as many cases of the virus as possible so that our health care system isn’t overtaxed.” 

2. It’s important to understand and combat the challenges that social distancing might cause for some families. 

These refer to the serious hardships on families who perhaps cannot work from home, for example, or who may rely on schools for two meals a day for their children. 

Part of Cannuscio’s work has focused on studying the impact of short-term school closures on such families. “Children in Philadelphia’s public schools are eligible for universal free lunch and breakfast,” she says. “If we close the school for just three days, that’s over 400,000 meals missed.” School districts have already begun to come up with creative solutions to this situation and the researchers say more are likely to come soon. 

3. Institutions and governments can make broad policy decisions and in turn, remove a weighty burden from individuals. 

If an airline or performer hasn’t canceled a flight or the show you bought tickets for months ago, it can be hard to know how to proceed in this unchartered territory: Cancel the trip or go? See the concert or stay home? If your office is still open and running, what are the expectations? Can you ask to work from home or will it be frowned upon? These decisions weigh on people, which is why Buttenheim and Cannuscio recommend they instead be made at a much higher level. 

“Good policies can help people make some of those decisions without exerting so much effort. They can help enforce a social norm that says we’re all in this together and we’re all going to adhere to these same rules. I’m also recommending to people they try to defer any big decisions that they don’t have to make today,” Cannuscio says. “I want people to think about the basics, their needs, their family’s needs, and policies will help people waste less energy on trying to make these decisions.”