Defining COVID-19 Terms: Flatten the Curve

April 16, 2020


Elizabeth (Izzy) Montgomery, MPA
Policy Analyst

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In this installment in our series explaining key terms and phrases used by public health officials in discussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at the phrase “flatten the curve.”

“Flatten the curve” has been a consistent message from the public health community regarding how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but what exactly does it mean? To explain, it’s helpful to reference the graph below, first published by The New York Times.

The two curves on the graph represent two scenarios: what could happen if there is widespread adherence to protective measures to mitigate the spread of the new strain of coronavirus (such as social distancing and stay-at-home orders), and what could happen in the absence of protective measures. The blue dotted line represents healthcare system capacity, meaning that above the line, hospitals and other healthcare facilities will be strained by potential surges in COVID-19 patients.

A primary objective of combating COVID-19 is to slow the spread of infection to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed beyond their current capacity to care for patients. In hotspots around the U.S., this has increasingly become an issue, particularly in places like New York City and New Orleans where healthcare workers are stretched thin and additional resources are needed to care for patients.

In Arkansas, progress has been made in reducing the number of new COVID-19 infections. In recent press briefings, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has pointed to data showing that the state appears to be flattening the curve, with a peak in the number of active cases being pushed back from an initial projection of April 27 to May 2. However, as the governor and other public health leaders have emphasized, Arkansans must continue to adhere to mitigation strategies like social distancing to ensure continued progress.

See more definitions of terms and other information about the pandemic on our website’s COVID-19 in Arkansas page.

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