Physical distancing is what we are engaged in right now. Spreading out the population and minimizing interactions is the strategy to minimize new infections so that the hospital system has a chance to care for the wave of people that are starting to hit the ER and then the ICU. It is a strategy where we will not see immediate success and the first success will “merely” be a slowdown in the rate of increase of infections and hospitalizations.
Anyone showing up to the hospital today was infected at the end of February or the first week of March.
Anyone showing up at the hospital next Monday will have been infected in the first half of March when there were instructions to wash your hands and cough in your elbow and little else.
Anyone showing up at the hospital at the end of March will have been infected as everyone was heading to the bars and restaurants and Spring Break for one last hurrah before everything started to lock down.
Incremental social distancing in the first half of March will have helped compared to the counterfactual scenario of business as usual. The big actions of governors like Cuomo, Murphy, Dewine, Baker, Inslee and others shutting down significant elements of their states in the past couple of days won’t show up in the hospitalization numbers until the last few days of March or the first couple of days of April. The next two weeks are already baked in.
And when we start to see results of physical distancing, the first results will merely be changes in the second derivative. Case counts per day may still increase, but at a slower rate. It is hard to get excited against a grim counterfactual. In other words, when things are bad, it’s hard to get excited about things not being as bad as they would have been had nothing been done. And that is what we have to wait for over the next several weeks; success as measured by a second derivative (rate of increase) shrinking at some point.