Putting the Risk of Covid-19 in Perspective

Is the risk of dying from Covid-19 comparable to driving to work every day, skydiving or being a soldier in a war?

How dangerous is it to live in New York City during this pandemic? How much safer is it in other places? Is the risk of dying from Covid-19 comparable to driving to work every day, skydiving or being a soldier in a war?

We are awash in statistics about Covid-19: number of deaths, fatality rates, contagion rates, But what does this all mean in terms of personal risk?

In 2011, another invisible danger, radiation, sowed fear and confusion in Japan, where I served as the U.S. Ambassador’s science adviser after the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. Then, as now, the news was full of scary numbers. And then, as now, there wasn’t nearly enough context for people to make sense of them, much less act upon them.

Fortunately, there are tools for assessing risk that can help us put the daily torrent of numbers in perspective. I found the best way to communicate the level of risk was to put it in terms that allowed easier comparison to other, more familiar, risks. One could then talk, for instance, about how dangerous living in a contaminated city was compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

A useful way to understand risks is by comparing them with what is called a “micromort,” which measures a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Note that we are considering only fatality risks here, not the risk of growing sick from coronavirus, or morbidity. The micromort allows one to easily compare the risk of dying from skydiving, for example (7 micromorts per jump), or going under general anesthesia in the United States (5 micromorts), to that of giving birth in the United States (210 micromorts).

The average American endures about one micromort of risk per day, or one in a million chance of dying, from nonnatural causes, such as being electrocuted, dying in a car wreck or being struck by an asteroid (the list is long).

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York City experienced approximately 24,000 excess deaths from March 15 to May 9, when the pandemic was peaking. That’s 24,000 more deaths than would have normally occurred during the same time period in previous years, without this pandemic. This statistic is considered a more accurate estimate of the overall mortality risk related to Covid-19 than using the reported number of deaths resulting from confirmed cases, since it captures indirect deaths associated with Covid-19 (because of an overwhelmed health care system, for example) as well as the deaths caused by the virus itself.

Converting this to micromort language, an individual living in New York City has experienced roughly 50 additional micromorts of risk per day because of Covid-19. That means you were roughly twice as likely to die as you would have been if you were serving in the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan throughout 2010, a particularly deadly year.

The quality of data varies from state and state, and continues to be updated. But for comparison, using the C.D.C. data, Michigan had approximately 6,200 excess deaths during this same time period. That is roughly the same risk of dying as driving a motorcycle 44 miles every day (11 micromorts per day). Living in Maryland during this time would be roughly as risky as doing one skydiving jump a day for that duration (7 micromorts per jump).

Now, if you’re infected with the virus, your odds of dying jump dramatically. Estimates of the fatality rate vary as doctors continue to learn more about this virus and how to care for people sickened by it, but let’s assume it is 1 percent for sake of this discussion. That translates into 10,000 micromorts. That risk is comparable to your chances of dying on a climb in the Himalayas if you go above 26,000 feet, where the tallest peaks, such as Everest and K2, stand (using climbing data taken between 1990 and 2006).

But that risk estimate is for the entire population, with an average age of 38. If you happen to be older, the fatality rate can be as much as 10 times higher, which is just slightly less than flying four Royal Air Force bombing missions over Germany during World War II.

If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

The acceptability of risk depends, of course, on one’s own attitudes and proclivity to take risks, and whether one has a choice in the matter. Unlike skydiving or hang-gliding, in which the risk is limited to the person making the leap, with Covid-19 the actions of the individual change the risk levels of everyone in the community.

So while there are many thrill seekers who happily jump out of planes, they might think twice about forcing their frail grandmothers, or their neighbors, to jump with them.

David Roberts (@DRobertsNYC), a former academic physicist, served as the U.S. Ambassador’s science adviser in Tokyo during the post-Fukushima recovery. Micromort examples came from “The Norm Chronicles” by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter (2014).

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/22/well/live/putting-the-risk-of-covid-19-in-perspective.html

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