Thinking about COVID-19 risk as winter approaches

I recently received a question from a COVID-19 Data Dispatch reader that followed a similar theme to many questions that readers, friends, and family members have asked me in the past few months. The question essentially outlined an event in the reader’s personal life that they’d been invited to attend, and asked for my advice: should they go? How risky was this event?

I have a hard time answering these types of questions directly, because I am no medical expert—I’m far from qualified to give direct advice. Instead, I like to outline my own attitudes towards risk at the pandemic’s current moment, and try to explain what I might do in that situation.

Right now, this type of decision-making feels harder than ever before. The majority of Americans are fully vaccinated, and we know how well the vaccines work. A growing number of Americans are getting booster shots, which we know are highly protective for seniors (and at least seem to reduce infection risk for others). So many of us are tired of the pandemic, and want to have a normal holiday season this year.

But at the same time, I feel an impetus to stay cautious—to protect the people around me as much as I can—as COVID-19 cases start to rise again in New York City, where I live, and in many other places around the country. 

It’s also important to note here that everyone has a different risk comfort zone right now, partially as a product of a dearth of local and federal safety regulations at this point in the pandemic. If you’re fully vaccinated, and you’re comfortable hanging out inside with a large group of fully vaccinated people, there is evidence to suggest that is a largely safe situation for you. But if you’re not comfortable at such an event, there is also evidence to suggest that you may be able to pick up the coronavirus (even from a fully vaccinated crowd) and bring it back to someone who is more vulnerable than you are. Every choice comes with a calculation—what risk are you willing to bring to yourself and to those around you? 

With all of that in mind, there are a few things I consider when I try to decide how “risky” an event might be. First of all, I still consider outdoor events to be very safe; the benefits of open air, wind, and sun far outweigh Delta’s high capacity for transmission. Then, for indoor events, I think about a few different layers of safety measures:

  • Will everyone be fully vaccinated?
  • Will negative COVID-19 tests be required before the event?
  • Will masks be required?
  • Will windows be open, or will ventilation in the space otherwise be high-quality?
  • What are the COVID-19 case numbers in the surrounding county; are they above or below the CDC’s “substantial transmission” threshold (50 total new cases for every 100,000 people in the past week)?

When at least three of these five conditions are met, I personally would consider an event safe for attendance. When fewer than three conditions are met, I tend to add additional layers of protection for myself and others in my immediate community by wearing a high-quality mask and getting tested before and after. (I might use an at-home rapid test or a PCR test, depending on how much security I want in that test result.

STAT News surveyed 28 infectious disease experts on activities they would currently feel comfortable doing. Chart via STAT.

Finally, if you’d rather listen to the insights of some high-profile COVID-19 experts than to me, I’ve got a source for you: STAT News recently surveyed 28 infectious disease experts on which activities they would feel comfortable doing right now. The responses to STAT’s survey reveal a diversity of risk comfort levels, even among people who are incredibly well-informed about the pandemic.

The vast majority of experts said they would travel by air, train, or bus for Thanksgiving (mostly with a mask on), and the majority said they would not attend an indoor concert or event without mandatory masks. Other than that, all the questions are fairly split. The article (which I recommend reading in full!) includes a number of insights from those experts explaining their survey responses.

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