Social Distancing vs. COVID-19: Are We Flattening the Curve?

Written by Robert Richards, Ph.D., Ben Gong, and David Muhlestein, Ph.D., JD

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused the U.S. and many other countries to put their economies on pause in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. The social distancing policies in place in many locations have dramatically altered our daily lives and our economic outlook. In the absence of a vaccine and/or effective therapies, social distancing is our only weapon against the virus. So at this point, it’s worth asking: is it working? We believe it is, based on analysis done here at Leavitt Partners Insight.

We developed a COVID-19 projection model, released early this week, based on well-accepted epidemiological methods and nightly data updates. Rather than assuming what the growth rate for the spread of COVID-19 will be, we measure what it likely is now based on the last 7 days of data. We update our projections nightly, allowing us to see how projections change as the current growth rate changes. In other words, we can see if the curve is flattening.

If the curve is flattening, the number of active infections at the peak should move down and the date of the peak should move further out. That is exactly what the figure below shows. On April 1, we projected that there would be almost 4 million hospitalizations at a peak seven weeks away on May 21. On April 15, just two weeks later, the peak had moved down to 553,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations (an 87 percent decrease) and out to July 17. We estimate that the U.S. has about 432,000 hospital beds available (assuming that elective admissions are canceled while all other baseline utilization remains). That means that if the April 15 projections hold, we will be about 121,000 beds short a few months out, but that’s much more manageable than needing almost ten times as many beds as we currently have in just seven weeks (as the April 1 projections indicated). Additionally, if this trend continues, we will move our peak below our capacity. The picture varies across regions and hospitals, but we find that all states have seen at least some curve flattening since the beginning of April. For more details on this analysis, download our white paper.

While the curve is obviously flattening, the natural next question is, have we flattened it enough to reopen the economy? It is actually hard to say from these numbers alone, but we’ll point out three things: first, this is significant movement in the right direction. Now is the time to plan for reopening, so long as we do not surrender the gains we’ve made by easing social distancing too much too soon. Planning the reopening (as opposed to just flipping a switch) is the right thing to do right now.

Second, at a minimum, we need to consider hospital capacity to handle these cases. If social distancing eases too much, the peak could again move higher and sooner. A spike of 4 million cases in seven weeks, as the April 1 projection showed, would be devastating to the health system, the economy, and the people of this country. We’ve made significant progress in two weeks, but the situation could easily go back to being much worse if we don’t act prudently now.

This leads to the third point, which is that reopening the economy needs to be done methodically and with local contexts and capabilities in mind. What we’ve presented in the graphic is a national average, but the story varies significantly by region. Some areas may be ready to open some parts of their economy sooner than others, depending on the current state of their outbreaks and on the ability of those locales to follow the national three-phase reopening plan involving gating criteria, tracking and tracing new infections and contacts, and monitoring situations in real-time on an ongoing basis.

The results we present here are heartening: social distancing is working so far. With that said, there is work still to be done. We will continue to update our projections and publish relevant analysis. We hope these efforts will inform those in charge of strategic and operational responses to this pandemic.