For the past few weeks, all of America has been transfixed by the chart that graphically depicts the concept of "flattening the curve." Every time I write a column, I try to include a graphic that will enhance my message, but I have never generated anything that had this kind of impact. This picture, which does not represent a graph of any actual data, slammed the brakes on the world's most powerful economy at a time when it was chugging right along.
The urgent question on everyone's mind right now is, "Is it working?" As of this moment, I believe the answer is a qualified "yes."
The reason I am hedging just a bit is because the data is not yet as clean as it needs to be. But that problem is being rectified rapidly. The key to getting a real curve in real time that can be analyzed with confidence is testing. We need to know how many people are being infected with the virus and when they became infected. That gives us the ability to create a chart with the number of infections on the y-axis and the time value on the x-axis.
To determine a rate of change, represented on a chart as the slope of the line, we need a numerator and a denominator. Once we have a reliable rate of change calculation, it will improve our confidence in predicting both the height and the timing of the peak. If you have read any of my past columns, this analysis should sound very familiar.
As I said, my very early assessment of the data we currently have is that our efforts to flatten the curve are succeeding. All of the efforts and sacrifices associated with social distancing are working for a large portion of the country.
Nevertheless, I am compelled to state there are places such as New York City, California and Washington where the situations remain dire. These hot spots could quickly become even bigger problems. So, an uncomfortable element of uncertainty will remain in the rate of change analysis until we start to get precise data and we develop a clearer picture of what is happening in the handful of hot spots that have emerged.
However, there is one thing I do know and so I have added a new line to the chart. This line enhances a developing story that is vitally important to the future prospects for our nation in general, and to the plastics industry in particular. My new line represents the higher level of our nation's health care capacity, and it is no longer horizontal, it has an upward slope.
Social distancing has slowed the rate of infection, and our collective experience with this may come in handy again in some future crisis. But all of the knowledge we have garnered as we vigorously worked to raise our ability to render care and keep this curve from overwhelming the system is an investment that will generate dividends long into the future.
This will not be the last large and unpredictable crisis we have to face, but it is another example of what can happen when we get hyperfocused and marshal our collective energies toward solving a big problem.
Our abilities to test for infectious diseases, our abilities to identify and develop vaccines and therapies, and our abilities to manufacture and distribute medical supplies and equipment have all improved dramatically during the past few weeks. We have also learned valuable lessons about the risks stemming from long supply chains and relying on foreign countries to provide essential products and data.
I do not want to trivialize the pain of those who have suffered or even died as a result of this disease. I would like to see us acknowledge their suffering, take appropriate action and resolve to bounce back stronger and more unified as a nation.
For my part, I expect to analyze a curve derived from economics or manufacturing data for my next column, and not a curve from the medical or public health sectors. That will undoubtedly be the best way for me to celebrate the increased knowledge we have all garnered on the use of statistics, economics, public health and journalism.