You’ll Need More Than a Covid ‘Risk Calculator’ to Avoid Getting Covid

With vaccine and masking mandates constantly changing, how do you know just how risky the average social situation is when it comes to getting Covid-19? Enter Covid risk calculators, research-inspired tools meant to help the average person determine their Covid risk level in varying situations from crowded parties of vaccinated people to half empty airplanes with a mix of those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Covid risk calculators (like this one from the Microcovid Project) ask for information that usually includes number of people present, masking policies, room size, vaccination status and sometimes even vaccine type to get a more accurate reading on your risk, and often aren’t peer-reviewed.

But just how reliable are these calculators and their algorithms?

“While these can be interesting, I feel that these types of calculators can sometimes elicit a false sense of security,” says Hannah Newman, MPH, the director of epidemiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Does this mean that Covid calculators are useless? Not quite. “The bottom line is that these are helpful tools, but not the rule,” she says. “Too often I see people use survival as the only endpoint, not recognizing that there are many adverse outcomes that are not death, but still debilitating and impactful in the long term (like potentially exposing an at-risk person to Covid).”

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Newman wants you to consider each Covid protection measure as a layer to lowering your risk to the best of your ability, like masking, social distancing, and air ventilation, with vaccination as the baseline. “The more layers we can put in place, the more confidence we can place in our health and safety,” she says.

That said, Newman does have a calculator that she thinks the public can benefit from. “I’m impressed with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s risk calculator for indoor environments, which allows for risk factors to be input on a sliding scale,” she says.

At the end of the day, Newman believes there is no such thing as a zero-risk gathering, but we can all work towards reducing that to the best of our ability. “Risk calculation tools—as long as they are based on verified and accurate data, of course—are not a perfect science,” says Newman. “But can be helpful for someone in choosing what types of risks they are willing to take.”

Taylyn Washington-Harmon is the Health Editor at Men’s Health, with previous bylines at Health Magazine, SELF, and STAT.

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