“The majority of us are going to underestimate the risk if we just leave it to our covid-fatigued brains to do the math,” said Emily Landon, chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine. Tools and dashboards may be able to help give people “a much better idea about how much risk is associated with the things that they’re going to do.”
But Landon and other experts say people should be cautious when using risk assessment tools and not rely too heavily on a single source, which could create a false sense of security as cases continue to surge less than two weeks before the start of Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
People can find information about the spread of the virus in their communities and nationwide through online data dashboards maintained by states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, universities such as Johns Hopkins and national media outlets, including The Washington Post.
Beyond simply tracking cases, some tools are attempting to communicate a clearer sense of the risk associated with individual behaviors, such as gathering with a group of people. Professors at Brown University released an app (MyCovidRisk.app) this fall that estimates a person’s chances of getting the virus from specific activities and offers suggestions for how they can reduce risk.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology launched an interactive map over the summer that uses real-time data to show the risk of attending events of various sizes in different places.
The research behind the Georgia Tech map was published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behavior.
The map was developed with the goal of connecting dense data to questions people may be asking themselves, such as whether they should go to a restaurant or sporting event, said Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech and one of the researchers behind the tool. “It’s hard for people to make sense of that just based on case levels. . . . What we tried to do is make this intuitive and accessible to all.”
Users of the map tool can choose an event size between 10 and 5,000 people and see what the estimated risk would be that at least one person in attendance is infected, depending on the location of the gathering. If, for example, someone was thinking of attending an event with 50 other people in the D.C. area, as of last Thursday evening, the map indicated a risk level of about 40 percent.
William Borden, a professor of medicine and health policy at George Washington University, called the map, which drills down to the county level, a “really powerful tool.”
“It provides a really great practical way to take sort of complex data and make it understandable,” said Borden, who was not involved in creating the tool.
Still, Borden and other experts urged people to be mindful of the data’s limitations.
For instance, the Georgia Tech map doesn’t tell you your risk of actually contracting the virus at an event, Borden said.
“That’s because your risk depends on a whole bunch of other factors, like is it outdoors or indoors? Are people wearing masks? Is there distancing? What’s the ventilation? Are people touching objects?” he said. “There are all these other factors that we have to really pay close attention to in order to reduce our risk of getting covid-19.”
Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins, said that the map also isn’t able to adjust for people’s unique behaviors, which may affect the risk of potential virus transmission.
While coronavirus mapping tools may be a “good red-flag indicator” for individuals, Garibaldi said, they may be more useful to policymakers trying to determine community health guidelines, such as limiting the size of gatherings.
Instead of relying on any one tool, Landon recommended people use multiple data sources to help with decisions and reference community and federal resources. The CDC recently updated its guidance for Thanksgiving gatherings, suggesting many ways for people to celebrate the holiday without putting themselves or their loved ones at increased risk.
“If you unknowingly spread covid to higher-risk individuals in your family, there’s no do-over for that,” Landon said.
Garibaldi also called for vigilance. “Right now is probably not the time to be trying to thread the needle of risk for individual behavior,” he said. “It’s time for us to be looking out for each other and really be tightening up our own behaviors and interactions so that we can get through winter with fewer cases and fewer deaths.”