Scientists are still debating whether we should try to “flatten” the COVID curve. The curve is a plot of deaths on the vertical axis versus time on the horizontal axis. The graph above is an example, showing daily deaths worldwide from COVID since the advent of the pandemic.
If you add up the daily deaths, you of course wind up with the total deaths – currently over 800,000 in the U.S. This is the “area under the curve.” (Calculus, anyone?)
“Flattening the curve” means lowering the peaks – lowering the daily deaths. Scientists on one side of the “flattening” debate – call them the Flatteners – say that we can accomplish that by taking preventive measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as we have for the last two years to varying degrees.
On its face, that sounds prudent. It was certainly prudent two years ago when COVID infections threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
Other scientists – call them the Non-Flatteners – contend that, with Omicron now the dominant variant, we should do the opposite. (Yes, “follow the science” is a meaningless platitude when scientists disagree, as they frequently do.) The Non-Flatteners point out that the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, and so preventive measures are futile.
Moreover, the Non-Flatteners say that the lethality of Omicron in low anyway. So people who catch it are even more unlikely to die than people who caught previous variants. In fact, Omicron infections seldom require even hospitalization, and so the threat of overwhelming the health system is mostly gone.
Finally, the Non-Flatteners say that allowing people to catch Omicron would be a good thing because, though a small percentage of them will die of it, the vast majority will survive. And the survivors will be conferred immunity from future infections that is far more effective than the immunity conferred by the vaccines.
The Non-Flatteners say that even if we can flatten the curve, and it’s not clear that we can, the flattening will lengthen it, and so the area under the curve will not be reduced. In other words, the pandemic will go on for longer, albeit at a lower daily death rate, to produce the same or a greater number of total deaths.
I’m not skilled in COVID epidemiology (and, the last two years suggest, neither are epidemiologists) but my instinct is that the Non-Flatteners are right. Flattening the curve by reducing the daily death rate will produce a longer curve by prolonging the pandemic. Consequently, the area under the flattened but lengthened curve – the total deaths – will be the same as under the higher but shorter unflattened curve.
And so the question becomes, do we choose a short steep curve of greater pain or a longer flatter curve of more moderate pain?
Expressed that way, this choice is no longer a debate about science so much as a debate about philosophy. It’s a debate about how to live. Some people will choose low-level pain that goes for years over high-level pain that goes for months.
I respect that. But for me, I’ll take my pain short and steep. I recognize that this short, steep curve of pain could claim me personally, or those I love. But so could the long, flattened curve of pain.
I don’t live recklessly. I take risks, but I calculate them. Sometimes I miscalculate, but better to miscalculate than not to calculate at all. Regular readers know that I was in the original Pfizer vaccine clinical trials, and still am. That entailed risk but my calculation was that the risk was acceptable when weighed against the benefits.
So too on this issue of flattening the curve. In my calculation of risks and benefits, I choose to live real over living long. I’m done with masks and social distancing. Life is too big, brave and steep to live it small, fearful and flat.