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What Does it Mean to ‘Flatten the Curve’ of COVID-19?

Patti Singer

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Heath, during a Zoom news conference May 1, 2020. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group.

Since the first case of COVID-19 in Monroe County in mid-March, we’ve heard about “contact tracing” and “flatten the curve.”

Those terms may be even more important as we inch closer to May 15, when Monroe County could reopen some manufacturing and construction businesses. If increased COVID-19 testing shows that large numbers of people have the virus and many of them need to be hospitalized, that could set us back. Officials are trying to avoid the second wave, or spike, of cases by raising awareness of physical distancing through the Protect Your Circle campaign.

Here’s what we need to know, from Dr. Michael Mendoza, Commissioner of the Department of Public Health at a news conference May 1.

Testing for COVID-19 is becoming more available at a time when people are feeling the strain of isolation. Will people want to be tested, knowing that a positive test means at least 14 days of mandatory quarantine? If people aren’t tested, does that artificially deflate the number of cases?

I think it’s too early to say that people are not wanting to get the test because they’re worried about what it might show. My experience is that people want to get the test. Where I put the brakes on is in saying just because you tested positive or negative doesn’t necessarily mean X or Y. …

Is antibody testing more important than a COVID-19 test?

The antibody testing, from what I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks and talking to my colleagues … truly none of us is hanging our hopes on these antibody tests just yet. The false positive rate (it shows you have been exposed to the virus when you may not have been) is the rate we care the most about when looking for a test that will clear you. When there is a false positive rate, the consequences are grave if people are to go out in the community and forget to do all the precautions that we advised. The false positive rate for antibody testing currently is unfortunately too high for us to hang all of our hopes on.

What is contact tracing?

The process involves looking backward and looking ahead. We want to look backward once we identify a person who has a confirmed result of positive. We will talk to that person and we look back in time where that individual may have contracted the infection. There’s a fair amount of complexity in that conversation. We need to talk to these individuals to help them to remember where they were 14 days ago. It’s not an easy task. Going forward from the point where they became symptomatic … we’re trying to identify anybody else who might be at risk.

What is a flattened curve and why is it important?

What we’re looking at primarily are the curves that relate to our capacity as a community to be able to care for those who are most ill. By that I mean the hospitalizations and the ICU admissions. That curve has flattened. The number of people who are admitted to the hospital in this county has remained relatively stable at roughly 100 for some weeks now. That’s well under the capacity that our hospital systems are able to support. … That’s the curve we have flattened and that’s the curve we need to keep following. If we can keep that curve flat or make it curve down, that’s the ideal place we want to be because then we can continue to have a green light to consider opening things further. If we open too quickly or if we let go of all the things we’ve done together as a community to keep that curve flat, then we threaten our ability to open things down the road.