Calculating the risk of catching Covid is like trying to have a soccer game on a field made of Jell-O: the playing field doesn’t stay still.
The odds change depending on where you are: how crowded a place is, whether people wear masks and are vaccinated, whether it’s outdoors or indoors and, if the latter, how well it is ventilated. Each new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is more or less contagious. Your own risk factors and the case rates in your community are important. The habits of the people around you matter, and of course so do your own. So do the public health mandates in the location and whether people comply or not.
Perceptions of these risks matter –both how risky you perceive a situation as being and the perceptions of the people around you—because this can effect how diligent you and others are at practicing risk mitigation behaviors, which in turn affects how risky situations are.
Americans Feel Covid Risk Is Higher than in April 2020
An Ipsos poll released February 8 (see chart above) showed how Americans’ risk perceptions can shift, sometimes in surprising ways. Of people surveyed from January 7-10, 2022, a remarkable 73 percent felt that they were at the same or greater risk of contracting Covid-19 than they were in April 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. This is despite widespread (though still not optimal) levels of vaccination and mask-wearing and other health safety measures like social distancing and capacity limits, combined with high numbers of people still working from home and a drop in the number public events. In November 2021, by contrast, only 56 percent of Americans felt that they were at the same or greater risk than in April 2020.
The numbers reflected the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant in late November 2021, and its rapid rise and fall. “Currently, 56% of Americans feel it is a large or moderate risk to return to their pre-coronavirus life right now,” Ipsos reported. “While this overall number remained relatively stable since mid-December 2021, this week’s poll shows a decline in those who say it is a large risk.”
The playing field is shifting again, as many states have ended or are about to end school mask mandates, with other states poised to follow their lead. (You can track this real time via this tool from Burbio, an events platform.) Other public health measures are about to change too, as omicron cases subside and the northern hemisphere spring approaches.
It’s exhausting trying to make sense of all the conflicting news reports and announcements from public health officials. That’s not even counting all of the misinformation out there.
What’s a health-minded citizen to do?
Even when you have access to risk information, it can be hard to make sense of it. Remember when people started getting vaccinated and social media was full of people posting which vaccine they got, and a mishmash of reports of both specificity and sensitivity rates of each? It was hard to make sense of it all. But, as Alison Schrager wrote for Bloomberg, “It’s possible to translate the data to make it meaningful, either by comparing it to other risks or by breaking it down into categories: risk to avoid at all costs, risk that should be managed closely, managed some, managed a little, or that’s not worth worrying about at all.” The article goes into more detail on making sense of vaccine efficacy numbers, if you dare.
Happily, there are ways to simplify risk calculations by estimating the places and situations that present the highest risk and comparing them to your own risk factors and tolerance. In addition, there are several tools that allow you to estimate the risk involved in specific scenarios, some very simply and others going into great detail.
A study released in January, based on reports of previous outbreaks and two different estimates of transmission rates, details the risk of catching Covid-19 in various places. In a movie theater, the odds range from 5.3 percent to 54 percent depending on how crowded it is, how many people are wearing masks, and how closely they comply with the “no talking” announcement during the previews. Working out in a gym ranges from 17 percent to 99 percent.
Online Tools to Estimate Risks
Several online tools can help you to estimate various Covid-related risks. My favorite is Microcovid because it takes into account your own personal risk factors and preferences. This handy calculator helps you develop a Covid risk budget -that is, how much risk you’re willing to take that fits your own relationship with taking health risks.
Below is a list of tools to help you calculate your Covid risk.
Microcovid.org. Location (geographic and indoor/outdoor), nature of activity, length of time, number of people, mask usage, personal risk factors. Generates risk estimate and personal risk budget.
Canada’s National Institute on Ageing. Location, vaccination rate, number of people, age, other medical risk factors, habits and living situation of participants, masking, expected behaviors at event, length of time, testing pre-event; your perception of risk. Generates risk of exposure at gathering and compares to your perceived risk.
Covid-19 Indoor Safety Guideline (Developed at MIT) Room specs, human behaviors (masks etc), age, viral strain. Generates 1) time estimate for how long it takes to violate safety guidelines and 2) recommended occupancy limit depending on amount of time.
Rockefeller Foundation Pandemic Prevention Institute. Location in US, vaccination, pre-event rapid testing. Generates odds of one person arriving infected at an event.
Center for Digital Health. Location (geographic and indoor/outdoor), nature of activity, length of time, number of people, mask usage. Generates risk on low to high scale.
Mathematica/19 and Me. Risk factors, health factors including exercise, risk behaviors (PPE, hand hygiene possible exposures), your vaccination status (including which type of vaccine you received); generates calculation of estimated probability of catching Covid-19 through community transmission.
COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool. Location and size of gathering. Generates likelihood of contact with someone with Covid-10.
COVID-19 Mortality Risk Calculator (Johns Hopkins). Demographic, pre-existing conditions and lifestyle. Generates assessment of individual mortality risks for people who are not infected or vaccinated compared to the average risk for the US population.
Each tool takes a slightly different approach. Try a few or all of them and see what works the best for you.
Read more about risk perceptions and responses in my new book, YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World.
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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