Despite encouraging signs that social distancing is working in California, where most residents are in their third week or more of sheltering at home, state officials are still projecting COVID-19 infections will peak in mid- to late May.
The reason for that is not because social distancing is failing — it’s an intended consequence of shelter in place. Social distancing is not meant to end the coronavirus outbreak; it’s meant to slow it down until a vaccine is widely available. By “flattening the curve,” California health officials hoped to buy time, preventing the type of overloading of the health care system that’s happening right now in New York City.
“We know that the bending or flattening of the curve means two things,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, on Tuesday. “It means our peak comes down, but it also means it goes further out. We move that lower and further out. So our thinking around May, and late May in particular, means it follows this idea of flattening. It’s not just a reduction down, it’s moving it out.”
A consequence of flattening the curve — unfortunately for those hoping to leave home soon — is that it lengthens the duration of the outbreak. This, however, is a tradeoff most governments are willing to make. The alternative, where people are allowed to leave their homes unfettered, means many people will become sick at the same time. Hospitals, already under strain, won’t have the supplies or beds to care for everyone. This worst-case scenario occurred in Italy, where resource-strapped doctors reported having to decide which patients lived or died.
“I’ve talked about the curve bending but also stretching,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. “And that’s why I just want to impress upon people that our modeling shows that we’re not at peak in a week or two. That we are seeing a slow and steady increase, but it’s moderate. And it’s moderate, again, because of the actions all of you have taken.”
One country that did briefly consider shortening its coronavirus timeline was the United Kingdom. U.K. officials floated the possibility of allowing up to 60% of the population to contract COVID-19, thus achieving “herd immunity.” At that point, enough individuals would be sickened and recover from the virus that transmission slows to an eventual halt.