Apr 22, 2022 - Health

The tricky business of weighing COVID risks now

Percentage who say they <span style="border-bottom: 2px solid #000;">&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</span> in the past week
Data: Axios/Ipsos poll; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

The end of the federal transportation mask mandate this week may have removed the last big pandemic mitigation measure, but many Americans were ready to move on as far back as last summer, data from the Axios-Ipsos poll shows.

The big picture: This data on Americans' willingness to dine out and socialize offers a window into how they've perceived risk and made judgment calls with public health regulations serving as guardrails.

What's happening: In this new phase of the pandemic, Americans are freed of most institutional shackles and largely on their own to make value judgments about which behaviors are acceptable or risky.

  • Those judgments are largely based on a combination of perceived individual risk, the norms of those around them, as well as just how important a particular activity is to them.

What they're saying: "My bias is to wear a mask unless I'm sure the people I'm sitting with are fully vaccinated and would tell me if they didn't feel well — and if the pleasure and joy I get out of taking my mask off outweighs the small risk and the small amount of anxiety I have when I do," Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, told Axios.

  • "That leads me to feel comfortable going out to dinner with small and medium-sized groups of people. It leads me to feel comfortable having people over to my house," he said.
  • But he masked up at a recent medical conference. "Is sitting there watching a lecture that much less enjoyable with a mask on? To me, it wasn't worth the risk."

Understanding risk: As the New York Times reported this week, experts have tried to offer different ways of describing the relative risks from COVID compared to other activities, such as the tool COVID-Taser or a unit of risk known as a "MicroMort."

  • Scientific American asked experts in medicine and risk assessment about assessing the risks of COVID. In one example, a researcher said for adults younger than 50 who are boosted, the risk of dying from COVID is "roughly equal to the risk of dying when someone drives about 10,000 miles."
  • NPR offered a breakdown this morning of some of the risks from different forms of transportation now that masks are coming off.

But, but, but: There is a lot that experts still can't tell us. For instance, we don't know how great the risk of a vaccinated and boosted person will develop long COVID if they're sickened by Omicron, Wachter said.

  • But this phase could see people make choices they might have hesitated to make not long ago, or even believe the virus is "gone."

Our thought bubble: In the conversations I've had with others about their COVID behaviors, we often agree our personal risk assessments don't always make sense.

  • For instance, I've completely forgotten about COVID when gathering in a crowded restaurant after being diligent about mask-wearing on the empty public transportation I took to get there.
  • But in other examples, our shifting behavior is entirely rational. For instance, low-risk individuals who aren't particularly careful much of the time might take more precautions in advance of a special event or before seeing vulnerable individuals.

The bottom line: Everyone has different factors they're considering when it comes to risk, even with the end of formal rules.

  • Just remember: "This was a legal decision — not a scientific decision," Joshua Santarpia, a microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center told NPR. "People should not take this as a sign that something has magically changed overnight."
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