4 reasons why Social Distancing is our biggest chance to limit the spread of the COVID-19 Corona virus

These are strange times. The Corona virus causing COVID-19 still has a tight grip on Europe and starts spreading now also in the United States. Normal life has ceased to exist: Most public places are shut down and many countries have curfews in place. This forced or voluntary Social Distancing it supposed to limit the spread of the virus and hopefully its victims. But how does that work? Here are 4 reasons why we need to keep a distance right now:

Reason 1: We need to flatten the curve

Those graphs showing the curve of Corona virus cases and the healthcare system capacity are all over the internet: The idea is that we need to keep the number of people affected at the same time as low as possible. Otherwise, we will have more sick people than we can treat simultaneously – and without treatment, the likelihood of recovery is much lower. More people will not survive.

Reports from the current situation in Italy show us what it looks like if there are more sick people than can be treated: Medical personnel work until exhaustion and still can’t save everyone. Looking at the case numbers and numbers of beds in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) in Italy demonstrates nicely what is happening:

The number of ICU hospital beds is much lower than the number of affected persons in Italy right now. Sure, not everyone needs a hospital bed: We know from China that the disease has a mild progression for 81 % of cases [3], which means 4 of 5 people infected will not need as much medical care. But for those remaining 19 %, intensive care is absolutely necessary to raise their chance of survival. And as of today, in Italy there are 6 times more people sick than there are beds in intensive care units in hospitals – which means there are much more people that need intensive care than the capacity of hospitals can provide.

In Germany, we have a different starting point: Compared to other European counties, we have the highest number of beds in intensive care units per capita [1], which gives us a better chance in this situation. The disease also started here a bit later, so that we are a little behind in the curve:

Because of this, we currently are still able to provide sufficient medical care to those who really need it right now. This is why we have a much lower death rate in Germany compared to Italy at this point:

In Italy the curve wasn’t flattened enough, which is why we have a much worse death rate there.

Still we see an exponential increase in the number of cases in Germany right now: The slope of the curve is frighteningly high. If we don’t decrease the spread of the virus, we will reach the same situation that we are having in Italy, just a little later in time. The graph for Italy would have looked like this one for Germany only a few weeks ago – it is just shifted in time! This is why we need Social Distancing, and we need it right now!

Reason 2: We need time to find the right treatment

The SARS-CoV- 2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease is a new version of a known group of viruses: The Corona viruses which cause respiratory infections in humans. Other members of the family already caused the SARS pandemia in 2002-2003 or the common cold everywhere and all the time.

Because this exact version of the Corona virus is new, we don’t have any antiviral treatment against it yet [5]. The only thing hospitals and doctors can do right now it try to relieve the symptoms of affected persons and tread other diseases and side effects. This treatment includes painkillers, rest and oxygen therapy [6]. Some other antiviral medication is being tested right now [7], but so far there is not enough data to show they are effective. And due to regulations, it is not possible to test every option without medical trials. Often there are unwanted side effects that can be just as critical.

As time progresses, we will obtain more data and can finish clinical trials of new medications. Therefore, the treatment options will improve over time and thereby chance of survival will increase.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Reason 3: We need time to develop a vaccine

Viruses such as this Corona virus can’t just be eliminated. Just like with any virus causing the common cold, they are around us and will spread if they find a host that they use to multiply their numbers and spread to new hosts.

Vaccines are the only way to prevent further infections for a community. Once we have reached sufficient immunization inside a community, viruses can’t find new hosts because vaccinated humans will be able to fight the virus and stop its spread. With no more hosts to infect, the virus will not be able to multiply anymore. Less and less people will get sick. The thread will be gone for the community.

For the current SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, we don’t have a vaccine yet because – just like why we don’t have a treatment yet – it is new to us. Therefore we also need time to develop this. Until we have a vaccine, there is no other protection against infection other than Social Distancing, washing your hands regularly and other hygiene advice.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Reason 4: We need to save those in risk groups

Many of us don’t see a thread in this Corona virus: As young, healthy people without any history of illness, it is hard to imagine that this virus might affect us. And indeed the experience in China tells us that 80 % of deaths from COVID-19 were 60 years or older [3]. But that does not mean that young people can’t get sick – they are just not as likely to die. Most importantly, as young and healthy people we should stay inside to limit the spread of the virus: Even if we ourselves don’t get sick, we can spread the virus among others. And those others might be seriously affected by it.

In these troubling times, our best option for all of us to help the community cope with the situation is to #StayHomeSaveLives. Get in touch with friends and family by phone or video call, let them know you are okay and help them through this. We are in this together and we need to make sure that we give everyone fighting out there the best chance of success: Those medical workers fighting for lives, the scientists working on treatments or vaccines and every person sick or in a risk group.

How are you holding up? Are you working from home? How is the virus affecting you and your life? Let us know in the comment section or get in touch! Be safe, everyone!

[1] https://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-012-2627-8
[2] https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19
[3] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm
[4] https://de.statista.com/infografik/21122/anzahl-der-betten-zur-intensivmedizinischen-versorgung-in-deutschland/
[5] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20479976
[6] https://www.who.int/publications-detail/clinical-management-of-severe-acute-respiratory-infection-when-novel-coronavirus-(ncov)-infection-is-suspected
[7] https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/988648/COVID-19-Drug-Therapy_Mar-2020.pdf

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