Much of the discussion about policy designed to deal with the corona virus has stressed the need to “flatten the curve.” But it might better be labelled, “reach the plateau.”
Important and illustrative are the cases of China and South Korea. After two or three weeks of rapid increases in the number of deaths and of new cases, both numbers ceased to rise much and that condition has persisted. Most impressive in this is the case count. Its rapid rise was substantially due to improvements and expansion of efforts to detect cases, and plateauing took place even as those efforts continued to improve and expand.
Although there is no way to know at present whether the hiatus in China and Korea will prove to be permanent, the experiences suggest that the epidemic can be contained, and that extrapolations concluding that the number of cases will soar into the hundreds of thousands or even millions in a country are not necessarily sound.
The virus came to the United States later, and the country seems only now to be in the early portion of the rapid‐increase phase. The China and South Korean comparisons would suggest, then, that for the next two or three weeks the US will continue to experience substantial increases in the death count and in the number of cases detected. The latter count will likely be greatly enhanced by improvements in case detection, an important enterprise in which the US has previously been comparatively slow. After that, there would be the plateau with only small increases in deaths and in the case count.
Total deaths in China, which was caught by surprise, stand at over 3,000 and in South Korea, which was not, at upwards of 100. A comparison might suggest that there might be thousands of deaths in total in the United States. This would be a tragedy of course, but one that should be kept in context: last year there were 61,000 influenza deaths in the United States. That was a peak year over the last eight, but even in the low season for the period, 2011–2012, there were 12,000 influenza deaths.
Whether the United States will follow the same pattern as China and South Korea has yet to be determined of course. In those countries, the problem was substantially concentrated in limited areas—in China’s case, a rather large one containing some 60 million people—and in both, deaths from the virus outside those areas have been substantially lower. That is not so much the case in the United States—though there are considerable regional differences. Also of concern is that the U.S was slow to institute testing, particularly compared to South Korea. And some worry that the dire experience in Italy, where death rates are exceptionally high and where the medical system has been overwhelmed, is more relevant to the American case.
We should know in a few weeks.