Listen: Not a Two-Week Problem

Dr. James Hamblin and Katherine Wells take a walk to the grocery store and discuss what the next week—and the next year—may look like in the U.S.

In the third episode of Social Distance, Dr. James Hamblin and Katherine Wells go on a walk. The two friends and Atlantic journalists head to the grocery store in Brooklyn. Wells asks Hamblin about the basics of the coronavirus and how the United States has responded.

Listen to the full episode here:

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Some questions that Hamblin answers:

Give us the scientific context. What exactly is the coronavirus?

There are seven known coronaviruses that infect humans. Four of them cause more cold-like symptoms and two of them existed before this year, and they were considered novel coronaviruses. They came from animals and they crossed over into us and they caused really severe, bad disease, SARS and MERS, and they killed a high percentage of the people they infected.

But they were able to be mostly contained. And the overall number of deaths and cases is already much, much higher for this new virus than for either of those diseases. And this is a third novel coronavirus and it’s right in the sweet spot of things that are extremely concerning, which is that it’s highly transmissible and that it has a high case fatality rate.

How has the U.S. done in its response?

We’ll know more once we have more testing. I think we are being callous and cavalier in terms of how many people are still going out to restaurants and bars right now compared to what we’ve seen in the rest of the world. And those shutdowns will probably be coming real shortly. But they definitely have to be accompanied with some package of payments to the restaurant owners and the staff. You can’t just say, “Hey, sorry, close your business. Indefinitely.”

What exactly is “flattening the curve”?

These things follow a curve. The growth follows a curve, the curve being the number of cases, and it starts going up really, really rapidly. And then you have the catastrophic emergency disaster scenarios when it gets too high, where you overload not just the health-care system, but no ability to get people food. Toilet paper is already apparently being tested, but a lot of other supply chains start being tested. So if you can flatten that out and we can all just get sick over a longer period, you know, we’ll be better off.