Story at a glance

  • Many Americans are facing hard decisions ahead of this holiday season.
  • New coronavirus cases are on the rise across the country, and there is still no publicly available COVID-19 vaccine.
  • A new tool helps users calculate the level of risk in attending several gatherings.

When the coronavirus pandemic first broke out, Americans were forced to consider the risk of doing the same things they had previously done without a thought. As the holidays approach and quarantine fatigue sets in, some are getting bolder than ever. But for others, making decisions on what to do or not do can feel overwhelming or even paralyzing. 

“Getting through this pandemic is essentially an exercise in risk management,” Allison Schrager, an economist at the Manhattan Institute in New York, told New Scientist earlier this month. 


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A new tool seeks to ease that burden by helping assess the level of risk involved in attending an event, based on real-time coronavirus data. The interactive map can tell you how likely it is you’ll encounter at least one person who is infected with the coronavirus if you go to a get-together with friends in Seattle, for instance, or a 100-person wedding in Maryland — or, more timely, a Thanksgiving dinner in St. Louis. 

Developed by Joshua Weitz, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the model uses information about the size of events as well as community spread in a particular area to assess risk in several countries, including the United States, using real-time data from the COVID tracking project and The New York Times COVID-19 data project.

Most people engage in risk management every day to some extent, from getting behind the wheel of their car (taking the 1 in 106 risk that you'll die in a motor vehicle crash in the United States, according to the National Safety Council) to lighting a candle. But while there is plenty of information to help make those decisions, ultimately, it’s up to you. 


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“In a way it’s like a weather map,” Clio Andris, a professor at Georgia Tech who helped Weitz build the tool, told the Los Angeles Times. “It can tell you what the risk is that it will rain, but it can’t tell you if you’ll get wet. That depends on if you carry an umbrella, or if you choose not to go outside at all.”  

New cases of coronavirus are surging in the United States, breaking records for new infections and hospitalizations. With no vaccination yet available, social distancing remains the best way to minimize the risk of being infected with COVID-19 or infecting others. 

“I can see a lot of people saying, ‘It’s been a hard year, and we really need to be with friends and family,’” Andris told the LA Times. “I get that, and I hear that, but it’s going to have consequences.” 


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Published on Nov 13, 2020