COVID-19 endemic: hoping for change

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Tri-County Health Care has gone through some noticeable changes over the past weeks. Some plexiglass dividers have come down, visitors and guests have been invited back into the hospital setting, everything seems to be slowly returning to normal. Are we entering the COVID-19 endemic phase?

As the winter cold has left us, so has COVID-19 for the most part. According to the Centers for Disease Control, our area and the entire nation have seen a steady decline of COVID-19. On February 3, the CDC data tracker listed 351,465 new cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Less than two months later, that number has dropped to 9,011 new cases on March 20. Also, on February 3, the CDC data tracker showed 2,693 deaths, but on March 20, that number plummeted to 77 new deaths. At least for now, we are in a far better place going into spring.

COVID-19 Endemic

The drop in community prevalence has many throwing their masks away and returning to bars, concerts, and shopping centers. The decline has many experts speculating if the spread of omicron was the precursor to an endemic phase of the virus. An endemic phase would imply that COVID-19 is still present but localized to certain areas. Health organizations have not officially announced a transition to an endemic phase of the virus. People should still be taking precautions like avoiding crowds and social distancing.

The calm after the storm

We all want the pandemic to end, but we shouldn’t drop our guard just yet. Of course, breathe a sigh of relief. It was a hard winter fraught with illness and death. We all deserve some time to relax and hope for a better future, but we have to be steadfast in our mitigation to get there.

According to statistics gathered by the Joint Commission, on a county level, we have seen a slight increase in community spread. This could only be the natural rising and falling of data or a signal of the next surge. Over the last two years, we have experienced intense waves followed by lull periods. These moments of decreased activity were a welcome change of pace but ultimately fleeting. Cases rocketed upward only a short time later.

Active adjustments

Tri-County Health Care holds patient safety above all else. We have reformulated our standards of mitigation to offer increased protection while allowing for a certain level of convenience in our care. Our level of mitigation will rise and fall with the community prevalence of COVID-19. Numbers are on the downswing, so we are opening up, but we are ready to swiftly reinstate the same level of mitigation techniques in the event of a surge.

The only way to end the pandemic is with collective effort. Mitigation needs to be at the forefront of our efforts. COVID-19 vaccination needs to be fully embraced if we are to finally end the pandemic. As of now, Wadena County is far below the vaccination rate required to achieve herd immunity. We are at 47.3 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Health statistics prepared on March 17. 70 percent of our county residents need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

What do you think?

Do you think COVID-19 will ever end? Ask yourself that question and be reasonable in your answer. Do you think we are entering a COVID-19 endemic phase? We are curious about your thoughts on the current state of our pandemic. Feel free to share in the comment section.

To schedule vaccination, call 218-631-3510. Patients can also receive the COVID-19 vaccine during a regular appointment with their provider. Please follow Tri-County Health Care on social media or visit for regular updates.

The COVID-19 variants and Mu

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The nature of a virus is to mutate so it can more easily spread. COVID-19 is no exception, and right now, there are four dominant variants. According to the Centers for Disease Control, scientists actively monitor populations for new mutations. This is necessary for tracking the virus and devising treatments.

Variants of concern

The CDC uses the classifications of interest, concern and high-consequence. Fortunately, no current variants are high-consequence. However, four of them have been identified as variants of concern.


Delta is the dominant strain. It was first discovered in India and is significantly more transmissible. It may cause more severe symptoms.


Alpha was found in the United Kingdom and is a quick-spreading variant. Vaccines and treatments are effective against the Alpha variant.


The very transmissible Gamma variant was detected in Brazil and Japan. The Gamma variant draws concern due to its ability to spread quickly and render some treatments less effective.


Similar to Gamma, the Beta variant spreads quickly from one host to another. Vaccines are effective but it does seem to be more virulent, making monoclonal anti-body treatment less effective. This variant was discovered in South Africa.

Variants are a constant concern for the medical community.

Variants of interest and Mu

A global pandemic gives a virus many opportunities to mutate. It’s important to keep tabs on every new mutation so medical professionals can be ready. Several variants of interest have been identified.

There is one particular variant of interest that has many on edge. The Mu variant has been making headlines for some time now, adding to the slew of identified variants. The Mu variant was discovered in Columbia back in January 2021. It has slowly made its way to the United States in small numbers. The problem with the Mu variant centers on its elusiveness. Vaccine experts predict this could be the virus that evades the current roster of COVID-19 vaccines. If the Mu variant were to pick up speed and become the new dominant strain, it would mean starting from square one again.

Tackling the fourth wave

During a recent interview with Lakeland PBS News, Tammy Suchy, Tri-County Health Care Quality and Risk Management Director, spoke frankly about the current difficulties with COVID-19.

“We have unfortunately had to keep people here longer than normal for things like strokes, heart attacks and sepsis, because there are no beds available in our region. We’ve even transferred a patient as far away as South Dakota.”

Tammy and the staff of Tri-County Health Care know that with every new variant comes the possibility of worsening circumstances. During her interview, Suchy made it very clear that the vaccine is the only way out of the pandemic and defeating the slew of variants on our doorstep.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Tri-County Health Care aims to vaccinate as many people as possible. To schedule an appointment, call 218-631-3510. Patients can also request the vaccine during normal provider appointments. Please follow Tri-County Health Care on social media or visit for regular updates.

Resilience and overcoming adversity

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Have you ever wondered why some individuals can get through tough situations while others struggle? The answer is different for everyone. However, resilience is a key component. Have you ever asked, “what makes me resilient?”

Resilience allows a person to manage adversity and not allowing those adversities to take away their personal resolve to do what is asked of them daily. Resilient people can change a negative situation to a more positive one through flexibility, not getting stuck on failures, healing emotionally, and continuing moving forward. Sounds easy, right?

The power of positivity

How many times have you heard “be positive?” Being positive does not mean an individual is not allowed to feel or discuss their negative emotions. Emotions like negative feelings, grief, loneliness, and working through the loss of normalcy must be given the acknowledgment they deserve. However, we don’t want to dwell on those emotions. Sometimes just saying things out loud, even if only a fraction of your being thinks it’s true, “this is for now, this is not forever,” can be helpful.

Break the negative cycle

The ability to regulate emotions while facing adversity is a trait of a resilient individual. Does this mean these people are never negative? Not even close; they are human, after all! One fact remains – negativity breeds negativity. Look at social media and observe how each person responds without the unpleasantry of seeing the person’s physical emotions on the receiving end of that nasty comment or harsh post. Some may even feel comradery when others share the same negative belief adding fuel to the negative cycle. Sometimes before responding, simply think about whether the input is solicited or helpful. Again, one skill of the resilient person is the ability to regulate emotions and to not engage in those sorts of exchanges that have a negative impact.

Trauma exposure does not mean a person will automatically become less resilient; sometimes, the opposite is true. It is important to know that the definition of trauma varies for everyone. Maladaptive coping in traumatic situations may reduce the ability to be resilient in the future. Reaching out to psychiatric services, clergy, or trusted individuals for support after trauma can be helpful. Support groups are another good option when many are exposed to the same traumatic situation. You may not feel you need a group session, but somebody else exposed to the same situation might appreciate you being there to help them walk through their emotions. Taking the hour out of your day to attend a meeting is never a waste of time when you have the potential to help another heal. You never know who you may be helping.

Under your influence

Part of resilience is taking note of what an individual controls. Sometimes breaking it down into three categories can be helpful.

1) What is in my control (family, food choices, exercise, sleep, emotional responses)?

2) What can I influence (community, being a positive role model, volunteer, service)?

3) What is my concern (COVID-19, weather, the price of gas, environment, world peace)?

In considering these three areas, break them up into percentages. Ask yourself where you are spending most of your time and emotional energy. Consider if it makes sense to do so.

Awareness of others

Lastly, be kind. Kindness can be contagious and is a common trait of resilient individuals. Kindness can be as simple as spending a few seconds to acknowledge those around you. Make eye contact, give a nod or wave. Something simple can easily make a person’s day. Telling somebody you are happy they showed up or saying this will be a stellar shift may be all it takes to change the day’s narrative.

I want to personally thank each staff member at Tri-County Health Care for your resilience and for taking care of the local community. The pandemic has weighed heavy on many. The loss of normalcy, the ever-changing information, and the loss of life must be acknowledged. Together, we will come out stronger and more resilient on the other side.

About the author: Traci Jones, APRN, PMHNPTraci Jones, Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Traci Jones is a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Tri-County Health Care. She loves living in rural Minnesota and resides on a ranch in Sebeka. Much of her time is spent tending to her horses and many pets. She is devoted to tailoring care to the needs of her patients and always tries to connect people to what truly matters.

Doctor’s Day 2021: Thank your provider!

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National Doctor’s Day is a time to honor the millions of healthcare providers standing between us and illness. It’s easy to let observances pass by without a singular moment of reflection but this year we should all turn our attention to the doctors that have taken a stand for our collective health. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of healthcare workers have perished. Every day they go to work not knowing if they will be infected with a potentially deadly respiratory disease.

Use this time to honor doctors and other medical staff still battling COVID-19. Some of Tri-County Health Care’s providers took this time to reflect on their careers.

Physician Provider Doctor Tri-County Health Care Dr. Heidi Olson Doctor's Day

Heidi Olson, M.D.

Heidi Olson: Science and superior care

Why did you choose your career path?

“I love science, the human body, and having a connection with others.”

What have you learned in the last year of practicing medicine during a pandemic?

“As healthcare providers, we need to have a little grace with ourselves and others. Forgiveness is so important right now. There are a lot of hard times in life and beating up on ourselves and others is not the answer.”

Do you have any advice for someone interested in becoming a doctor?

“Follow your passions, there are so many unique areas and facets of medicine. For example, I love wilderness medicine and how it pertains to my outdoor hobbies. In my clinical practice, I enjoy focusing on wellness and quality of life, as well as palliative care in my end-of-life patients.”

Physician Provider Doctor Tri-County Health Care Dr. Shaneen Schmidt Doctor's Day

Dr. Schmidt with her patients, Alyssa and Fiana

Shaneen Schmidt: Patience

For National Doctor’s Day, people are curious, why did you go into medicine?

“I chose to be a physician because I wanted to be instrumental in improving the life and health of others. Particularly, I like being able to put the various social aspects together when taking care of a family. Understanding that a mother’s health or their child’s health affects how they take care of themselves.”

What has the pandemic taught you?

I had to learn how to increase my flexibility and patience. The state of the virus is always changing and I had to learn patience in trying to explain a novel virus that we are constantly researching. I’ve also had to learn to accept that some people may not acknowledge or appreciate my expertise.”

Any advice for newbies entering the field?

“I would recommend they focus extensively on classwork, training and the perseverance that it takes to get through eight years of education plus the several years of specialized training. If you can get through that, a very rewarding career awaits you.”

Physician Provider Doctor Tri-County Health Care Dr. David Kloss Doctor's Day

David Kloss, M.D.

David Kloss: Work with your team!

Why did you become a surgeon? ​

“I love interacting with people and their families and I’ve always had a knack for taking things apart, figuring out what was wrong, and putting them back together. I ​enjoy the changing routine and challenges of being a surgeon.”

What is the important takeaway from this pandemic? 

“People are resilient and we can get through anything if we stick together.”

Do you have any advice for surgeons in training? 

“Work hard and play hard! It is important to study, apply yourself, but also make time for fun to avoid burnout. Medicine is a very long marathon race. You have to pace yourself to make it all the way through. Eat healthy, get some exercise, and take a vacation with your family.”

Share with me a time when your knowledge of medicine changed someone’s life for the better.

“A doctor called me about a 60-year-old gentleman with sudden severe back and abdominal pain. He was sweating profusely. Not in shock but his heart rate was elevated. I made the diagnosis over the phone of a rupturing aortic aneurysm. I ordered an emergent CAT scan over the phone and met him in the ER. From there, we expedited his resuscitation and transferred him to a surgeon at a facility that could perform an aortic stent graft. He had a rupturing iliac artery aneurysm (a rare and very difficult issue, even more difficult to treat). By expediting the CT scan along with his resuscitation and communicating directly with the specialist, I saved his life.  It is not always yourself doing the surgery, but it can be the simple little things that save a life. That’s what makes medicine the greatest career.”

Physician Provider Doctor Tri-County Health Care Dr. Ben Hess Doctor's Day

Ben Hess, M.D.

Ben Hess: Trust is a valuable resource

What led you to this profession?

“I love challenges. I enjoy solving complicated puzzles and I wanted to do something that would help my community.”

What insight have you gained from the pandemic?

“As complex and cumbersome as medicine is normally, in a crisis, we can act decisively and quickly. The public trust is a precious resource we should never squander.”

On National Doctor’s Day, do you have any advice for students?

“Take the hardest classes from the best teachers, regardless of the subject. Everything you learn will help in medicine whether it is science, math, or even art because they all make you a more well-rounded person which can help you connect better to people.”

Laura DuChene: Small town, big heart

Why did you want to become a physician? 

“I’ve wanted to be a physician for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota. We had a family physician and he always went above and beyond. I decided when I became a doctor, I wanted to be just like him. I knew I wanted to raise my children in a small town where I could be like him, and that led me to Tri-County Health Care.”

What’s the best part of being a doctor?

“I love getting to know the families and watching them grow and change. There is nothing more rewarding than delivering a baby and watching that patient become a parent for the first time.”

Has the pandemic shown you anything special?

“We are a strong community and we have a fantastic family of medical providers. Many people have come together to make our community safe and I couldn’t be prouder to live and work here.”

For National Doctor’s Day, please reach out to your provider and let them know how they have impacted your life for the better. Please follow Tri-County Health Care on social media for regular updates. To schedule an appointment with one of our providers, please call 218-631-3510.

Physician Provider Doctor Tri-County Health Care Dr. Laura DuChene Doctor's Day

Dr. DuChene with her patient, Amanda.

COVID-19 vaccine: Everything you need to know

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The announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine has many breathing a sigh of relief. Several months of staying home, social distancing, and wearing masks has led to a major change in everyday life. People are in a hurry to return to the way things were and a vaccine seems like the only way out. Others are more hesitant; they may believe the vaccine has not passed through proper testing.

This article is designed to be a fact sheet about the upcoming vaccines. It is a condensed and simplified record of information gathered from sources like the Minnesota Department of Health, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Operation Warp Speed

Operation Warp Speed (OWS) combines scientific testing and government quality control. Essentially, OWS removes several administrative hurdles during the production of an effective vaccine. The methodology associated with OWS uses processes that would normally take years and compresses them down. This change is done by running the various steps simultaneously rather than one at a time.

Medical workers and seniors will be among the first to get the vaccine.

The breakdown

Creating an effective vaccine requires multiple steps and extensive testing. Generally, the process includes:

  • Methodology and lab research
  • FDA approval for clinical trials
  • Volunteer testing
  • Safety and efficacy testing in a large group
  • Large population testing with control groups
  • Final FDA approval
  • Distribution

The facts

  1. There is currently no approved vaccine available in the United States. Testing is underway, and a vaccine is expected before 2021.
  2. You will not contract COVID-19 by receiving the vaccine. The vaccines do not use a live virus. It will be similar to other widely used vaccines. It may cause symptoms like fatigue or muscle pain. These symptoms mean the vaccine is working.
  3. COVID-19 vaccination will not make you test positive for COVID-19. You may test positive for antibodies. This positive antibody test suggests either a previous infection or that the vaccine successfully created antibodies.
  4. People who were previously infected with COVID-19 should still consider being vaccinated. Studies suggest that reinfection is possible, and antibodies may last just a few months.
  5. Testing shows that receiving the vaccine does provide antibodies in around 90 percent of people. Receiving the vaccine could be the best option for fighting COVID-19.
  6. The vaccine was not rushed. Instead, administrative red tape was removed. The development and testing trials are still extensive.
  7. Once distribution begins, the first rounds of the vaccine will most likely go to health care workers and people with compromised immune systems.
  8. The COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory.
  9. The COVID-19 vaccine will be available at no cost. However, providers of the vaccination will be able to charge an office visit fee.
  10. An mRNA vaccine will not harm your DNA. mRNA, which stands for messenger ribonucleic acid, makes protein. It does not interact with DNA at any point.

The problem with herd immunity

Herd immunity is a common talking point but is likely impossible to achieve. This form of immunity implies that a large enough section of the population has contracted the virus and is resistant. Herd immunity is not a reliable strategy for combating COVID-19. It is due to a lack of important data about transmission frequency after infection. We do not know how long it takes from initial infection for a person to be vulnerable again.

The race for a vaccine

At this time, five vaccines are being tested. These vaccines are being tested by:

  • AstraZeneca
  • Janssen
  • Moderna
  • Novavax
  • Pfizer

AHA, AMA, ANA seeks safe COVID-19 vaccine

Recently, the American Health Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association addressed the American people about the status of the COVID-19 vaccine. They have given their full support to the creation of a safe vaccine. All three groups consider it to be the best option for safeguarding communities around the world. They cited the importance of scientific testing, safe distribution and total transparency about the vaccine within the address. They collectively want people to know the benefits and risks associated with the vaccine.

Become informed

The rate of vaccine production might seem like a cause for concern, but it is not. The same level of quality control used in the past is present with the manufacturing of these vaccines. The creation of these vaccines is the combination of good science and a unified need for relief.

For more information about how Tri-County Health Care and how it has been combating COVID-19, visit

Flu Season is Back

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As temperatures grow colder, the flu season is raging back. Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and battling the influenza season will place an excessive strain on the health care industry. That is why medical professionals urge everyone to receive their flu shot this year.

Sebeka Clinic fights the flu

On Oct. 13, Janice Hiedeman went to the Sebeka Clinic to get her flu shot. She used this opportunity to safeguard her health while indirectly helping others. From the start, she experienced an environment where her health was a top priority. That is because the Sebeka Clinic, like all Tri-County Health Care locations, has employed measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 All patients entered through the front and exited through the back to prevent face to face contact. Signage organized patients and staff within the building. The message of social distancing was always evident.

“I really liked that everyone was very professional and friendly,” said Janice when asked about her appointment. The pandemic has made receiving care a lot different, but many of the new changes made Janice’s appointment easy and anxiety-free.

Janice was impressed with the speed of the process. Within 10 minutes, she was admitted, received her shot and was on her way. Janice doesn’t care for waiting in the lobby so she was relieved. She commented that receiving the shot was painless.

On the day Janice visited the Sebeka Clinic, 150 people got their flu shot.

Getting a flu shot is important

Everyone 6 months or older should receive a flu shot. Compromised individuals and adults over 65 are at an even higher risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 39 million people were affected by the flu from Oct. 1, 2019, through Apr. 4, 2020. A flu vaccine will help reduce the burden on our health care systems. The illness reduction allows health care staff to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic more efficiently.

To schedule your flu shot, please call 218-631-3510.

Flu Shot Flu season influenza Tri-County Health Care Sebeka Clinic COVID-19 Coronavirus

Coronavirus: Ask the Tri-County Health Care Experts

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States around the country have been taking drastic measures to help limit the spread of the Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Governor Tim Walz has issued an executive “Stay at Home” order for Minnesotans to significantly mitigate person-to-person contact.

While many people in the state will be staying home to help “Flatten the Curve,” Tri-County Health Care staff remain busy preparing for the Coronavirus to reach our communities. We know there are many questions circling this pandemic and our experts at TCHC wanted to take the time to answer questions on a wide range of topics. This week, our experts cover who is considered in the high-risk category, how children are affected, ways to clean and disinfect your home and alternative options to seek medical care during this pandemic.

Coronavirus Q&A ask the experts imageQ: What groups of people are considered in the high-risk category?

The reason so many experts stress the importance of social distancing is because it is crucial in reducing the spread of the virus to high-risk individuals in our communities. Ben Hess, M.D., explains who we are working to protect while social distancing.

Dr. Hess: When we talk about high-risk patients, we’re talking about two specific groups – people who have an increased risk of catching the Coronavirus and another group who may struggle after becoming ill with it.

The first group includes people who have problems with their immune system. This can be people who have an autoimmune disease or are on medication that suppresses their immune system. These people not only have a higher risk of catching Coronavirus, but are also more likely to become seriously ill.

The other group includes people with chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Even if they have good control of their condition, we still want them to take precautions like they are in the high-risk group. While they may not catch the Coronavirus quite as easily, their chronic diseases can play a much larger role if they do become ill. For example, if a patient has a condition like diabetes under control, but then becomes critically ill, their body can no longer control the diabetes and their complications worsen.

Q: How does the Coronavirus affect children?

Dr. Hess: Studies show young children tend to tolerate and do much better with Coronavirus symptoms than adults. They are in the low-risk category and have a low chance of getting seriously ill or hospitalized from the Coronavirus. The risk isn’t zero, but it’s much lower than adults.

Q: What are ways to clean and disinfect inside the home?

Many people are wondering how to best clean and disinfect areas in their own households. This is important not only to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, but also good practice for everyday germs. The Environmental Services team does this on a daily basis at Tri-County Health Care and has tips for how to best keep the household clean and free of germs.

Betty Klingaman, TCHC Housekeeping Supervisor: Using a bucket and rag, make sure to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. These contact surfaces can include handles, desks, phones and keyboards. Make sure to clean all parts of the contact surfaces, including underneath tabletops and desks. If the surface is dirty, clean with soap and water prior to disinfecting.

Homemade disinfectant:

-Mix 5 tablespoons or 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons per quart of room temperature water.

DO NOT use hot or cold water – this minimizes the effectiveness of disinfectant.

-Mixed solution has a shelf life of 24 hours.

-Household bleach is effective against Coronavirus when properly diluted.


-Contact surfaces should stay wet to ensure complete disinfecting.

-Be careful with solution – bleach can damage surfaces and discolor material.

-Follow manufacturer instructions for application and proper ventilation.

-Make sure product is not expired.

-Never mix household bleach with ammonia or other household cleaners.


Q: What if I need to see my provider but don’t want to risk exposure to the Coronavirus?

Jill Wilkens, MPAS/PA-C: We know that it is still necessary for us to provide care not only for the sick, but for our routine healthy patients as well. You may still need to be seen in certain situations. We are working out a process to find a safe alternative location to take care of our healthy patients. If you feel unsafe coming into our facility, please call and we will do whatever we can over the phone. You can also utilize MyChart and we will take care of you.

Patients also have the option to seek care online through the TCHC eClinic where providers can virtually diagnose, recommend treatment and prescribe medication. (Our eClinic also offers FREE Coronavirus screening)


Q: What news sources do you recommend to stay updated and informed on the Coronavirus? What should we do to be prepared?

Dr. Hess: Take care of yourself, eat healthy, stay hydrated, get plenty of rest, get good exercise, and keep an eye out for updated information here or visit Centers for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health.

The Coronavirus: Flattening The Curve

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As viruses spread, they tend to infect increasing numbers of people at high rates. The initial side of the curve over time, or rate of new infections, will naturally increase rapidly as more and more people are infected. If left unchecked, the total number people requiring health care will quickly rise well above the capacity of our US health care system.

By taking certain steps – canceling large public gatherings, for instance, and encouraging some people to restrict their contact with others – governments have a shot at stamping out new person-to-person transmissions, while also trying to mitigate the damage of the spread that isn’t under control.

The epidemic curve, a statistical chart used to visualize when and at what speed new cases are reported, could be flattened, rather than being allowed to rise exponentially. “If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go into big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” stated Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “That would have less people infected. That would ultimately have less deaths. You do that by trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”

Stop the spread of coronavirus by flattening the curve

The notion that the curve of this outbreak could be flattened began to gain credence after China took the extraordinary step of locking down tens of millions of people days in advance of the Lunar New Year, to prevent the virus from spreading around the country from Wuhan, the city where the outbreak appears to have started.

The quarantines, unprecedented in modern times, appear to have prevented explosive outbreaks from occurring in cities outside of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.

Since then, spread of the virus in China has slowed to a trickle; the country reported only 19 cases on March 9th. And South Korea, which has had the third largest outbreak outside of China, also appears to be beating back transmission through aggressive actions. But other places, notably Italy and Iran, are struggling.

On any normal day, health systems in the United States typically run close to capacity. If a hospital is overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases, patients will have a lower chance of surviving than they would if they became ill when the hospital’s patient load was more manageable. People in car crashes, people with cancer, pregnant women who have complications during delivery – all those people risk getting a lesser caliber of care when a hospital is trying to cope with the chaos of an outbreak.

“I think the whole notion of flattening the curve is to slow things down so that this doesn’t hit us like a brick wall,” said Michael Mina, associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“It’s really all borne out of the risk of our health care infrastructure pulling apart at the seams if the virus spreads too quickly and too many people start showing up at the emergency room at any given time.”

The U.S. has about 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people (South Korea and Japan, two countries that have seemingly thwarted the exponential case growth trajectory, have more than 12 hospital beds per 1,000 people; even China has 4.3 per 1,000). With a population of 330 million, this is about 1 million hospital beds. At any given time, about 68% of them are occupied. That leaves about 300,000 beds available nationwide.

Most people with Covid-19 can be managed at home. But among 44,000 cases in China, about 15% required hospitalization and 5% ended up in critical care. In Italy, the statistics so far are even more dismal: More than half of infected individuals require hospitalization and about 10% need treatment in the ICU. As cases spiked, Italian hospitals quickly couldn’t keep up with the patients coming in.

Countries and regions that have been badly hit by the virus report hospitals that are utterly swamped by the influx of sick people struggling to breathe.

Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University, is gravely worried about what he’s hearing from contacts in Italy, where people initially played down the outbreak as “a kind of flu”. Hospitals in the north of the country, which the virus first took root, are filled beyond capacity, he said.

By limiting exposure to others, also known as “social distancing“, epidemiologists believe the curve could be meaningfully flattened. Social distancing means avoiding contact with others. This is crucial from a global health perspective. Limiting coronavirus cases not only has the obvious benefit of keeping the elderly and vulnerable safe, but it lessens the single biggest public health issue: overwhelmed hospitals.