STANFORD (KPIX 5) — Past the point of containment, the best hope is to slow a virus down, or “flatten the curve.” The idea is to keep the virus from spreading so quickly that it overwhelms our health care system’s ability to treat the very sick.

That is what social distancing is designed to do, but where on that curve is the United States now, and where might the country be heading?

“Of course, hindsight is 2020,” says Dr. Bonnie Maldonado, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the Stanford School of Medicine. “We never know where we are on the curve, until after the curve has been drawn.”

Maldonado says making any prediction about how the virus will spread in the United States is difficult, because the country is actually watching several different outbreaks at once.

“For example, in new Rochelle, New York, we know that that is a very specific kind of outbreak, and we could maybe pattern that one,” Maldonado explains. “But that has nothing to do with what is happening in Seattle, or in Santa Clara, or any other place. So it’s really hard to scale up a model that would take into account all of the different scenarios across the country.”

In that respect, Maldonado says Italy makes for a problematic comparison with the United States. And while the country has lagged in testing for the virus, there is some encouraging evidence at our hospitals.

“Even with lack of testing, we would probably be noticing a lot more people that are sick,” Maldonado says.

In other words, there has not yet been a dramatic or overwhelming surge in very sick patients. That means social distancing, and the other steps we are taking, could be putting the brakes on the virus, at least enough to keep that curve down.

“We know that from looking at epidemic curves going forward, 3 to 4 days of intervention can make a big difference between a flat epidemic and a peaked one,” Maldonado says of mitigation strategies like social distancing. “I do think we will be able to limit the spread, I just don’t know where it will stop.”

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