On March 11 2020, following a 13-fold rise in COVID-19 cases outside China, the WHO declared the disease a pandemic. The novel coronavirus is now spreading in exponential proportions across the globe, crippling even some of the best healthcare systems. There are unprecedented events: there’s a sense of uncertainty, and for most of my generation, this is the “war” of our time. Times like these also call for a collective responsibility, for each of us to do our part. We are in this together, for the long haul. And I mean that in the most literal, least metaphorical way possible.
The epidemiology explained
An epidemiological study of the outbreak in China estimated the basic reproduction number (R0) of COVID-19 to be 2.68. 1 That essentially means that early on, every COVID-19 infected person can transmit the disease to an average of 2.5 others.
The epidemic doubling time of COVID-19 is 6.4 days.1 That means every 6-7 days, the number of cases increases by a factor of two. Exponential growth. This is the reason why the spread can be seemingly slow initially, only to lead to a sudden outbreak in a matter of days to weeks. It’s also why reducing transmission as early on in the outbreak as possible can dramatically reduce this exponential explosion of cases.
Social distancing & “flattening the curve”
Social distancing is key to slowing down rates of transmission and might very well be the most responsible act in the face of this pandemic. This includes keeping a safe distance (at least six feet) between others, avoiding social gatherings, public transport, non-essential travel/ commutes and working from home, if one can. Needless to say, these measures must be accompanied by the consistent practice of healthy hygiene.
And it works: these simulation graphics by Harry Stevens of the Washington Post are a superb demonstration of the impact of social distancing on halting disease transmissions.2
The concept of “flattening the curve” alludes to reducing the number of cases over time by slowing the rate of transmission of the disease so that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed beyond capacity. COVID -19 can be fatal in anyone, with the elderly and those with comorbidities such as diabetes, heart and lung diseases at higher risk of severe infection.3 Latest reports from the WHO now emphasize that young people are not off the hook either, with data from countries showing that people under 50 make up a significant proportion of patients requiring hospitalization.4
The fundamental idea of social distancing is to reduce disease transmission to EVERYONE, not just oneself. The incentive is not just preventing oneself from catching it. Even seemingly healthy individuals might develop a milder or asymptomatic form of the disease, retaining the ability to transmit it to the elderly (the worst hit) and other vulnerable groups they encounter, including young people. This leads to a rapid growth of the pandemic, overwhelming the healthcare systems beyond their capacities. An overwhelmed health care system will not be able to treat all the COVID-19 cases coming its way, and will also be limited in resources to care for someone who has a heart attack, an accident or cancer.
However, turns out staying at home is easier said than done, with some still struggling to grasp the concept. “I’ll just be a while, what can happen?” they’ll say. At a time, where testing for COVID-19 is also rationed, staying away from large gatherings is ever so much more important, especially when one shows symptoms. In the fascinating case of Patient 31 of South Korea, we see the dangerous potential of a “super-spreader” phenomenon, in a 61-year-old woman who by virtue of attending religious gatherings prior to testing positive for COVID-19, transmitted the disease in large clusters, leading to a sudden surge of cases in South Korea.5
Sharing information: Responsible information, not misinformation
In a pandemic such as this, there’s also a tendency for rampant misinformation, easily transmitted through social media channels. This calls for the responsible dissemination of information, and while this is applicable to everyone, the onus is more so on healthcare personnel.
Social media can be used positively and responsibly to educate the public and refute myths: platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are proving to be a great way for healthcare personnel to reach out to communities, explain epidemiology and create awareness of healthy practices during this pandemic. The WHO website has also detailed some of the more common myth-busters: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters
With the volatility of the situation and the torrent of information flooding in from multiple sources, it can be difficult to sift between what’s reliable and what isn’t. These are some reliable channels you can turn to for correct information and updates. It’s also important to seek out your local source of information depending on geographic location.
Check on your elderly friends and relatives. Refrain from hoarding essential items, thereby potentially creating a shortage, making things difficult for senior citizens and those living on a daily wage.
The economy has taken a hit, but the hit on health care is bigger. With severe shortages of essential items, those of us with the capacity to donate locally, in whatever way we can, should be doing so. The WHO also has a COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/donate
Check on your colleagues
For healthcare personnel and their families, this can be a particularly overwhelming time. Some of us may not be on the frontlines, but have friends and family who are. Just those words, “on the frontlines”, sends a chill down my spine.
But that’s exactly what this is. War. War against a common enemy. And when you’re going to war, you don’t make light of the prep.
Which brings to mind this brilliantly appropriate quote by Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007:
“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare. We need to reach out to everyone with words that inform, but not inflame. We need to encourage everyone to prepare, but not panic.”
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. In this global healthcare crisis and the ultimate test of our times, it is on all of us to be responsible.
- Wu JT, Leung k, Leung GM. Nowcasting and forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak originating in Wuhan, China: a modelling study. Lancet 2020; 395: 689–97
- Stevens H. Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”. The Washington Post March 14, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/?fbclid=IwAR1ALnyJWXEcBIIh1qFvz1a3JMCtAQP0_jvYIKIRqBnrKpjDKn-sEo1J39A
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC): Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Are You at Higher Risk for Severe Illness? https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html
- WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 20 March 2020. https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—20-march-2020
- The Korean Clusters. How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals. Via Reuters Graphics. Updated March 3, 2020. https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-SOUTHKOREA-CLUSTERS/0100B5G33SB/index.html
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