July 08, 2020

The COVID-19 curve has unflattened fast. Now what?

Pandemic historians who showed the power of efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ say it will take all-out effort by individuals, industry and elected officials to reduce death and suffering until vaccines are available

COVID-19 curve

Back in early March, experts hoped a history lesson could save American lives.

And it did.

Cities and states hit hard by the new coronavirus ‘flattened the curve’ of a rising tide of cases by cutting back on the kinds of interactions that can spread the virus from person to person. More than 100 years after the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the same steps that worked against that deadly virus also slowed the new one.

“Just as our research on the 1918 pandemic had predicted, temporary restrictions on public activity kept COVID-19 from overwhelming most hospitals, and gave medical researchers time to study how to slow this virus, learn how to treat patients effectively, and start developing vaccines,” says Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D. He’s a University of Michigan medical historian who led a major study of that long-ago pandemic, and helped coin the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ based on how the 1918 pandemic behaved when cities limited public gatherings and some kinds of business activity.

But by late April of this year, Markel and others started warning about the risk of history repeating itself if people didn’t continue to heed the lessons of 1918 — or start heeding them in places that hadn’t seen many COVID-19 cases yet.

Going backwards

Now it’s July. Hospitals have started filling up with critically ill COVID-19 patients in cities and states that escaped the first wave, or relaxed their restrictions too soon or too far.

Just like their predecessors 102 years ago, many governors and mayors have had to reverse course, putting limits back in place after people started gathering and cases started rising.

Meanwhile, rapid research has shown the importance of cloth masks in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and yielded valuable clinical insights for medical teams that are just now seeing their first cases. Vaccine candidates have started to emerge.

But Markel and his colleagues are still worried.