Flattening the Curve II

March 15, 2020

This is one in a series of my informal posts to family, friends and neighbors about COVID-19. The series focuses mostly on legal issues related to the virus — how the U.S. Constitution balances the authority of government to protect our common good and our individual liberties. There’s no legal or medical advice; the focus is on demystifying the law and science in these unprecedented times.

A lot of people are saying that all the closures, etc. are too extreme and out of proportion to the actual risk. Are they?

Here’s the deal: Most of us are going to be just fine even if we get sick. But, this is a highly contagious disease and there are many older people and people with pre-existing conditions who this disease could easily kill if they don’t get access to medical attention.

But — if everyone gets sick quickly (which can happen with a disease with this level of contagion), the health care system won’t be able to handle the load and people who need ventilators and intense care will be sent home. That could be disastrous.

So, the whole key here is slowing the trajectory of the disease so the hospitals don’t get over-whelmed.

CDC graphic

This is “flattening of the curve” and is absolutely essential to preventing many many thousands, if not millions, of preventable deaths. (The highlighted text links to a great graphic so you can see the flattening of the curve in action.) In short, this is something we are doing for each other — the elderly and sick who we may not even know (but who also may be us or others in our families) — if not for ourselves.

The closings of schools etc is certainly extreme, but it is appropriate from a public health perspective given that we haven’t rolled out testing to know the full extent of the disease (a total and complete national failure) and we aren’t going to lock down people as done in China. By law we are required to use “the least restrictive means necessary” to limit personal liberties in order to protect public health and safety.

So, these sorts of closures are the only tools we have to save many lives. I fully expect to see the U.S. take the same actions as Italy in terms of closing down the nation sometime this week (week of March 16th).

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Marice Ashe

Marice is a public health lawyer deeply committed to furthering health equity and fostering the common good through the tools of law and policy.