At one point, the theory of “flattening the curve” was ubiquitous. The basic concept was that lockdowns could slow the spread of coronavirus, and this was of great importance since, as we were told at the time, “We can’t stop this virus.” The narrative went that if the virus were to spread unchecked, hospitals would be overwhelmed and both people with coronavirus and those needing medical attention for other ailments would die from the lack of access to care.
It all made sense. To a certain extent, it still does. Most graphics depicting flattening the curve, such as in The New York Times, showed two curves. Typically, the first was associated with no lockdowns that peaked well above the capacity of the health-care system, while the second, “flattened” curve was associated with lockdowns with its peak hovering near capacity. The areas under each curve, representing the total number of Covid-19 infections, were roughly equal.
Flattening the curve made two assumptions. First, it assumed that a certain amount of deaths and infections were inevitable and the best we could do was delay the process. No one promoting flattening the curve talked of stopping the disease; there were no graphs showing that if we locked down, infections would go straight to zero.
Second, flattening the curve was always shown with the same level of flattening: just enough to not overwhelm the health-care system. This was a tacit admission that flattening the curve would be painful and that it would not be beneficial to flatten the curve beyond the level needed to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.
Flattening the curve was the bait. Next came the switch.
It didn’t take long for the “flattening the curve” storyline to be abandoned. For example, California had more than 26,000 hospital beds available for coronavirus patients, but they locked down when they had about 200 coronavirus hospitalizations on March 20. That was less than 1 percent of their coronavirus hospital capacity. It quickly became clear that the California hospital system was not under threat, yet the lockdowns remained and “flatten the curve” was abandoned in favor of “suppress at all costs.”
To this day, there are states that locked down during the initial flurry of panic and remain locked down despite the lack of any true threat to hospital capacity. At its peak, Colorado had 888 coronavirus patients in hospitals. As of June 24, that number is 134 and has dropped near-continuously since April 23, yet the governor is removing restrictions slowly and schools are contemplating remote learning for the fall.
The narrative of flattening the curve was almost silently replaced with “lockdowns save lives.” Many early shutdowns resulted in over-suppression, which meant any subsequent opening would be accompanied by an increase in cases and hospitalizations.
Yet, since the flatten-the-curve notion that infections were inevitable has been abandoned, any uptick in cases is now spun by most of the media as apocalyptic. This can be seen in Florida, where cases are surging and ABC, CNN, and CBS all frequently report record numbers of cases. This ignores the fact that Florida has more hospital beds available now for potential patients than before the pandemic started.
This curious phenomenon isn’t confined to the United States but has played out all over the world. New Zealand started talking of flattening the curve, but quickly enacted aggressive lockdowns and managed to stop the virus. Now, however, they are in a situation where they can open up internally, but because of their lack of immunity, the entire country must remain isolated from the rest of the world.
The greatest tragedy associated with abandoning flattening the curve to suppress at all costs is the massive number of non-coronavirus deaths that are a direct result of the lockdowns. The New York Times found that almost one-third of the excess deaths in New York and New Jersey were not from coronavirus. It’s almost impossible to make a reasonable estimate at this point, but my calculations put this number around 30,000.
Flattening the curve was sound logic when it was originally presented, and remains so today. That’s why so many people across the political spectrum originally bought into the idea. The change from flatten-the-curve to stop-the-virus-at-all-costs, however, has been a disaster. More than 40 million people have lost their jobs. The related angst and associated lack of social opportunities created a dry forest that exploded in flames when George Floyd was killed. Moreover, deaths of despair and child abuse are both likely rising as a result.
We must reject the largest, most destructive bait and switch ever enacted and return to the principles of flattening the curve. We must accept that nature can be brutal and more infections will happen. Yet we must push through. We must strive to reopen our society as much as possible and only implement mitigation efforts to the extent needed to avoid a clearly imminent threat of overwhelming hospitals.