Coronavirus ‘roller coaster’ will last months, not weeks, experts predict

State Department instructs Americans 'Do Not Travel Abroad'

Over the last two months, most Americans have gone from blase to a siege mentality about the new coronavirus.

The concept of staying home and social distancing is now as familiar as it is disruptive, difficult, and economically dreadful.

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Public officials, wary of further spooking their communities, have been talking about two or three weeks of closures and other emergency measures, then a reassessment.

But experts who have been running computer simulations of various scenarios are now publishing reality checks. Bottom line: The return to normal will not be soon or smooth.

“I’ve been estimating six to 10 weeks just to flatten the curve, not for containment” of the virus, said Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Drexel University.

“Flatten the curve” — another recent addition to the vernacular — refers to tamping down, but not stopping, an outbreak. That turns it into a more gradual rate of infection over a longer period of time so hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. This strategy, called mitigation, involves quarantining patients, social distancing, and closures of nonessential services and businesses.

Instead of a curve, picture a roller coaster, suggested University of Pennsylvania ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, biostatistician Susan Ellenberg, and epidemiologist Michael Levy in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times.

Instead of a curve, picture a roller coaster, suggested University of Pennsylvania ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, biostatistician Susan Ellenberg, and epidemiologist Michael Levy in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times.

“We need to be thinking in terms of months, not weeks,” they wrote.

China’s drastic lockdown of 57 million people in Hubei province, where the virus emerged in December, was aimed at not just flattening the curve but suppressing the virus. If suppression is successful, it reduces transmission to the point where an infected person spreads the virus to fewer than one other person on average. When this “reproduction number” is below one, the virus will eventually stop spreading in a susceptible population, and the death rate will be minimized.

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