COVID-19 is a delaying game

I've heard a lot of people get fatalistic about taking precautions, and talk about how they're inevitably going to get sick with COVID-19 even if they wash their hands, maintain distance, even if they partially self-isolate (e.g. work from home). This can be due to living with others, having a face-to-face customer service job, or just eating food that has passed through the hands of others.

And it's true. They're most likely going to come down with COVID-19 at some point, regardless of what they do.

The key—the thing people aren't talking about—is when. And that makes all the difference.

(Disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. Parts of this post are informed by biology courses I took in college, and reading I have done since then.)

The main thing about a pandemic like COVID-19 is that it happens quickly, with large numbers of people getting sick all at once in the same area. Hospitals run out of beds or equipment, healthcare workers succumb to exhaustion, neighbors are too sick to care for each other—or are afraid to, since they don't have immunity from prior exposure. If you can make the pandemic take longer, there are fewer people who are sick at the same time, and everything becomes that much less stressful, that much less dangerous. Hospitals may not have to turn people away; healthcare workers might have enough time to actually attend to everyone; there are more healthy people to take care of the sick people. There might even be enough hand sanitizer to go around! There's less chance of supply chain disruptions, so food and medicine stay easily available more of the time.

Slowing down the pandemic also buys time. It buys time for vaccines, medications, diagnostics, and techniques to be developed, tested, and rolled out. If you keep from getting sick long enough, you get a chance at getting the vaccine rather than the disease. It also buys time for people who are immunocompromised, have other health conditions, or are otherwise vulnerable. The fewer people who are sick at once, the fewer transmission pathways there are to the vulnerable.

And on the theoretical side, it may be that a virus (or bacteria) that can't be transmitted as easily has a greater chance of reducing in virulence over time. (Keyword: "virulence trade-offs".) This is a controversial hypothesis, and not settled science, but I find it persuasive. SARS-CoV-2 will always be with us, but it may evolve into something a little less scary over time. Making transmission more difficult could help with this.

So yes, you're probably going to get it. And it's going to be a long slog no matter what. But the more you can do to slow its transmission to you, and from you to others, the better off you will be, and the rest of us as well.


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