Why are we being asked to take such drastic measures? Here's the answer.

Different methods of handling the coronavirus will end in drastically different ways. Here's the science behind social distancing, according to the Washington Post.

One by one, we've watched countries across the world succumb to COVID-19 (coronavirus): China, South Korea, and Italy are just a few of the countries who've been hit particularly hard in the past three months. Now, as United States health officials accept the inevitability of the pandemic spreading across our nation, too, we find ourselves in a unique position—learning from the mistakes and successes of those who have gone before.

So how do you contain a "wildfire" that seemingly grows exponentially? Coronavirus cases in the U.S. have risen to more than 7,000 since the first one surfaced in mid-January. On March 1, there were only 498 cases in the United States, and by March 9, there were 1,320. Figures done based on the CDC graph below show that in the last nine days (since March 9), cases must have increased by almost 500 percent in order to reach the 7,000+ total. This insane level of growth is being called the "exponential curve."


Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

According to the Washington Post, there are four key methods to consider when attempting to contain and manage the spread of the disease. They've created a fascinating simulator to show how quickly the disease spreads, based on the following methods:

  • a "free-for-all" (doing nothing)
  • an attempted forced quarantine over the one infected segment of the population
  • moderate social distancing (75 percent of the population stays home, keeps a distance from others)
  • extensive social distancing (87.5 percent of the population stays home, keeps a distance from others)

Watch the differences play out below:

While there are likely pros and cons for each of the methods, it's easy to see how the spread of the virus slows down when some of the dots (indicative of people) stop moving around. That sharp, steep curve flattens.

Blue = Healthy
Orange = Infected
Purple = Recovered

sharp curveflattened curve

Courtesy of Washington Post

Moderate social distancing is marked by about 25 percent of people continuing to be out and about, while 75 percent of the population stays put. Extensive social distancing, on the other hand, cuts that 25 percent in half, only allowing for one in eight (or 12.5 percent) to carry on with their lives as normal (ideally, essential personnel).

The United States is attempting to flatten the curve through a combination of moderate and extensive distancing, based on how we've watched other countries handle the pandemic in the past few weeks. 

Though using social distancing has the potential to drag COVID-19 out over a longer period of time, the benefits are clear. Health care providers would have a fighting chance if they only had to handle thousands of infected citizens at once, as opposed to millions. Delaying the rapid onset gives scientists time to develop treatment or vaccinations before the entire population catches it. And, the extension into the warmer months of summer may potentially lessen the impact (though that's not yet proven).

Yes, it seems really drastic to shut down restaurant seating areas and schools and movie theaters and concerts and sporting events. But the government isn't really trying to ruin our spring. Drastic situations call for drastic measures. There's a method to the madness. We won't get out of this unscathed, but if we each do our part, we can keep the effects of the coronavirus to a minimum—or at least more manageable.

Now we just need to share this information with everyone and hope that proper understanding of the situation goes viral—before the coronavirus does.