Flattening the curve is critical, social distancing is our ‘only weapon’

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The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City has shut down all performances and is encouraging social distancing. The sign reads, “LA Theatre standing together, but 6 ft apart.” Photo by Amy Ta.

Nearly 40 million Californians just completed the first weekend under Governor Gavin Newsom's shelter-in-place directive. Much of Los Angeles was shuttered. People went to hiking trails and beaches -- but in droves. 

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, medical and public health professor at UC Davis, tells us why so many people were out this weekend, and why social distancing is so important right now.  

KCRW: Are people taking stay-at-home orders seriously enough?  

Wilkes: “The problem is when you have a nice weekend like we've just had, people go stir crazy. I drove by parks on my way to work that were filled with people and dogs. 

People can go outside, that's certainly allowed. But if they're close to each other, that defeats the purpose. I think this idea of social distancing is really challenging for people.

Perhaps a better term is physical distancing. We want people to stay connected socially. But physical distancing, I think is challenging. And there are small minorities who are putting our large majorities at risk. This is spring break season and around the campus, where I work, there are still parties at some of the frats. The problem is they're spreading disease, even though they may not be showing symptoms. The incubation period for this is two to 14 days.” 

According to Wilkes, some people don't believe the COVID-19 medical reports. Others, he says, might feel like they're doing a good job of supporting local businesses by visiting those. 

“Perhaps more of them think, ‘Well, I don't really know anybody in my circle who's sick and therefore, I'm not really having to worry,’” he says.

The first instance of community-acquired exposure in the country was in Sacramento, according to Wilkes. The number of people infected has risen since then. 

He notes, “But as of last night, when I looked at the numbers, 32,000 Americans have been infected. And that's rising fast in every one of the 50 states. Here in California, we have 32 deaths. I think that it's time that people do take this seriously. And it isn't going to be fun and it isn't going to be easy, but it's the only weapon we have.” 

Some hair salons, clothing stores, and other small businesses were open this weekend. They’re trying to survive financially, but is staying open irresponsible?  

“I'm a doctor. I don't need to pass moral judgment,” says Wilkes. “But from a health perspective, it is irresponsible. The point is that these are not bad people. They're just making bad decisions, and it's affecting the rest of us. We need to try to encourage them to take this seriously.”

Why is the concept of flattening the curve so important?

“At the bottom end, there are these two overlapping curves. One is tall and pointed, and the other is less high and more spread out. We're trying to go from that tall [curve] to the flatter curve,” says Wilkes.

He says that the flatter the curve, the less likely people will get sick all at once. “That means that our healthcare system is going to be better able to handle the steady flow [of patients]. … We have a finite number of respirators. We have a finite number of beds. This idea of flattening the curve is really about spreading things out over a bit longer period of time, in a manner where we can handle it.”  

Does flattening the curve extend the outbreak? Does it mean a longer period of extraordinary control measures?

“It could, absolutely. But it means that more people will live, and that our respirators or hospitals or doctors and nurses can handle a steady flow much better than they can being overwhelmed at one point. This is what happened in Italy and in Spain and early on in China. It just is not manageable. 

We talk about the curve. But at the end of the day, it's really about social responsibility, and that we are all in this together, and we can work together to protect each other.”