With the World Health Organization declaring coronavirus a global pandemic, it’s pretty clear the goal now is to slow the spread of the virus. To do that, health experts say we need to break the chain of transmission by keeping potentially infected people from coming into contact with others who are healthy. That means cancelling large gatherings, events or anywhere where large crowds tend to gather.

It’s annoying and disruptive, but it’s also potentially our best way of keeping the virus from spreading fast.

“Whenever you see the virus, it’s moved on already — it will have infected other people by the time you become aware of it,” Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Washington Post. “Slowing it down matters because it prevents the health service becoming overburdened. We have a limited number of beds; we have a limited number of ventilators; we have a limited number of all the things that are part of supportive care that the most severely affected people will require.”

Preventing a catastrophic spread of newly transmitted cases requires “social distancing,” both on the part of governments that can cancel big events or limit the crowd sizes, as well as individuals. This means foregoing concerts, parties, church, even weddings. While people with compromised immune systems who may be more susceptible to illness should be doing this already, people who are healthy should also practice it, both for their own health and to protect those who are more vulnerable.

Dora Anne Mills, the state’s former top health official and currently chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, says social distancing is common during flu season (which is still upon us), and works the same way for coronavirus protection. Common social distancing strategies include telecommuting, avoiding mass gatherings and keeping a distance of several feet between yourself and others, she said.

The term for slowing down the spread of the virus is called “flattening the curve.”

“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday. “That would have less people infected. That would ultimately have less deaths. You do that by trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”

Flattening the curve helps hospitals and medical professionals not become inundated with a huge number of sick people needing treatment, potentially overwhelming hospital beds, medical equipment and supplies. This helps medical facilities remain functional.

According to the medical website StatNews, a hospital that is overwhelmed with coronavirus cases is a hospital with sicker patients with a lower chance of survival. In fact, everyone who goes to the hospital for any ailment stands to get less care if the hospital is drowning in chaos.“I think the whole notion of flattening the curve is to slow things down so that this doesn’t hit us like a brick wall,” Michael Mina, associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Stat.

“It’s really all borne out of the risk of our health care infrastructure pulling apart at the seams if the virus spreads too quickly and too many people start showing up at the emergency room at any given time.”

Have more questions about how to protect yourself or your loved ones from coronavirus? Send them to [email protected] and we’ll try to answer them.

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