Today the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. The novel virus which was discovered just three short months ago has taken over 4,300 lives and infected upwards of 120,000 people in 114 countries around the world.

The exact definition of a pandemic is the “global spread of disease” (and not the severity) but there is varying criteria to meet that threshold. The WHO has stopped short of making this rare declaration over the past several months, but as community spread mounts in all continents but Antarctica, today’s move indicates that continued widespread community transmission is inevitable and countries need to prepare immediately.

During today’s press conference, Dr. Tedros, the Director-General of WHO, stated that while 90% of the cases are in 4 countries (China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea) “China and South Korea have significantly declining endemics.”  This fact demonstrates that strong containment and mitigation efforts from governments and health care officials can change the course of this disease with strict and swift actions referred to as “flattening the curve.”

“Flattening the Curve”

The “draconian” lock-down measures that China and South Korea enacted have slowed the virus and contained the endemics in hotbed clusters in those countries. It is likely that the nationwide shut-down in Italy this week will have the same effect. Restricting travel, canceling mass gatherings, closing schools, and encouraging home quarantines are protective measures that epidemiologists refer to as “flattening the curve” as seen in the image above.

The rapid spread of a disease has tremendous consequences on a healthcare system, as more cases require more care, more beds, and more resources than a hospital or facility may be able to handle. If containment measures are not successful in reducing ongoing transmission, as evident in the US, deliberate social distancing measures slow down the spread of a disease and are critical to ensure healthcare systems can support the ill and the injured.

The Situation in the US

Cases in the US have doubled in just a few days and have surpassed 1,000. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease stated that “it will get worse” as cases will continue to increase because containment measures and contact tracing have failed to prevent community spread in some regions of the country.

Washington state, with more than 279 cases and 22 deaths, announced a ban on mass gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle area. And last week, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft told Seattle-based employees to stay home and shut down individual offices.

When issuing the pandemic today, Dr. Tedros urged “countries to detect, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in response” as an effort to “prevent cases from becoming clusters and those clusters becoming community transmission.” In a drastic move to do just that, India announced today that they would suspend all existing visas from across the world until April 15. Meanwhile, schools and universities have been shut down in Poland and other countries like Denmark have restricted mass gatherings.

Evidence from declining cases in China show that social distancing measures slow down the spread of the disease, and coupled with the WHO’s pandemic declaration, we should expect more countries and public health systems in the US to enforce social distancing measures as Seattle has done, and it is vital that we are prepared for it.