Monday, March 09, 2020

Let's Talk Relative Risk

Relative risk is such a fascinating concept. Basically, things we have experience with seem less risky even when the risk matches or exceeds other things. Right now with the COVID-19 virus, we have a perfect example. This virus is new, and yes, we have more to learn about its transmission, manifestation, and long term effects for those who survive. 
However, our best information right now is that your best defense against transaction is washing your hands. Which is the same thing - along with the annual vaccine - that we recommend for protection against contracting the seasonal flu.
And yet, there are soap and hand sanitizer shortages, folks are providing anecdotal reports of more people at the sinks in public bathrooms, and coming up with better strategies for handshakes. Conferences have offered live streaming, companies have temporarily altered their sick leave policies and where possible are encouraging more telecommuting. 
In general, one's likelihood of contracting COVID-19 is about the same as contracting the flu. The flu is deadly for folks who have compromised immune systems or are otherwise frail. Or who just don't have access to good healthcare. The numbers of those people that any of us interact with on any given day have likely not altered much this year. Travelling carries the same risks of exposure and transmission. 
And yet it seems clear that people are taking it very seriously. I do not at all mean to downplay COVID-19. I have asthma, have elderly family members with various lung conditions, I certainly applaud any and all efforts we can engage in to minimize viral spread, and in fact have contacted my local government about this, which I certainly have not done for the flu ever, so it's me too. 
I don't want folks to think the takeaway is that germs are everywhere and therefore nothing is safe, but germs are everywhere all the time, and hopefully some of these habits we can carry forward with us. We can try to be more thoughtful about how our own personal choices intersect with the safety and continued health of others.