The Dizzying Chaos of Calculating Your Covid Risk

In lieu of coherent public guidelines, most of us resort to incoherent private rules. Riding the New York City subway recently, I noticed that just about every advertisement — at least all the ones directly in my sightline — seemed to be public service messages about Covid-19 safety.

There were cartoon graphics showing how to properly wear a mask. There were earnest invocations to wash your hands, get tested, stop the spread, flatten the curve — if not for yourself, do it for your vulnerable loved ones. As I took it all in, I was hit with a wave of déjà vu. Back in the 1990s, during the AIDS crisis, the subway PSAs were heavy on ads about safer sex. Instead of masks, the messaging was about condoms. Instead of social distancing, it was monogamy, if not celibacy. Instead of being afraid of aerosol droplets and fomites, we were afraid of certain bodily fluids.

These weren’t just advisories but a kind of moral decree: If you were a good and ethical person who cared about your own health and the health of others (not to mention if you were sufficiently unhomophobic to care about a disease that was overwhelmingly killing gay men) you’d either abstain from sex or use condoms during every single encounter. If you were selfish and terrible, you continued to party like it was 1979.

Since human behavior falls along a spectrum of good/ethical and selfish/terrible, most people responded with half measures. In my community of mostly not-terribly-at-risk twenty and thirty-somethings, we were usually just as self-serving as we were scared. Again and again, I observed the same patterns. People would use condoms at the beginning of a new relationship, but discard them at some arbitrarily defined point, sometimes after getting HIV tests but often not. They would continue to pick up strangers in bars but throw in perfunctory conversations along the lines of “Do you have STDs? No, do you? No. Okay!” They’d play mind games with themselves that sought to evaluate risk based on some nonsensical combination of stereotyping, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking. I know I should have asked the guy if he’d been tested for HIV lately, but he drives a Volvo so he must be safe!

On and on it went. And did I mention that much of this behavior was accompanied by ardent denials of said behavior? And that degrees of denial often ran proportional to degrees of judgment of others? The friend who scolded you for having unprotected sex with your newish boyfriend was frequently the same friend who routinely had unprotected sex with too-new-to-even-be-called-boyfriends and wouldn’t have admitted doing so even if you’d put her hand on a Bible and made her take an oath. (After a few glasses of wine, she might have admitted it.) Ah, the ’90s.

And here we are in 2020, doing a new version of magical math: call it Chaotic Covid Calculus. Just choose from the available data about prevention, plug in the points of your choosing, and let a swarm of statistics, probabilities, hearsay, and gut instincts whir around your head until you’re dizzy. Then make up a set of fairly arbitrary rules that allow you to tell yourself you’re being careful while also just doing most of the stuff you want. I’ll ride the subway but I’ll stand near the doors. I’ll go to a dinner party as long as we’re eating alfresco. It’s okay for the housekeeper to come if I open all the windows.

In the absence of carefully choreographed harm reduction initiatives from the White House or federal health authorities, what might have been a nationwide synchronized kick line has become a bunch of solo interpretive dances.

I’m not talking about obvious concessions like wearing masks when you’re indoors with anyone not in your household, or avoiding public indoor gatherings even with masks. (No to mention no brainers like not being dumb and horrible enough to attend the secret underground unmasked balls that are apparently cropping up all over the place.) I’m talking about how, in the absence of carefully choreographed harm reduction initiatives from the White House or federal health authorities, what might have been a nationwide synchronized kick line has become a bunch of solo interpretive dances — 328 million of them to be precise. We’ve each got our own way of doing this.

In some cases, the solo interpretive dance is imposed on huge numbers of others. There is perhaps no better example of this than the arbitrarily decided “3% infection rate,” that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio set last summer as a threshold for keeping public schools open. Early last week, as the rate grazed up against 3%, the schools shut down, leading many parents to wonder why it was okay to dine indoors at a restaurant but not send a child to a school.

But even as we bristle at the seeming randomness of official orders, most of us maintain our random orders. I’ll tell you a few of mine. I never leave home without a mask, but if the sidewalk is empty I’ll tug the mask below my nose and then pull it back up when someone approaches. (The sensation is not unlike flicking your high beams off when passing another car on a dark country road.) When I need any kind of grocery item, I’ll go to the supermarket but not the bodega because the supermarket feels more spacious and airy — never mind that there are probably twice as many people in the frozen food section alone than in the entire bodega.

Last month I drove up to Massachusetts and spent three days with friends in their home, unmasked, because… it was Massachusetts! The average daily incidence rate in the area I was visiting was less than two per 100,000. If my friends weren’t worried about me being in their house, why should I be? Also, we sat outside on the deck a lot. Until it got cold. Then we went in and sat around in the kitchen like it was old times. They own a Volvo, by the way.

Here’s another version. My friend K__ in California, who’s trudging through the muck of the dating app scene, has decided that she can go out with as many men as she wants to as long as the dates take place on her patio. Too cautious to meet them at a restaurant, even outdoors, she entertains her suitors in the open-air privacy of her backyard. On occasions when the entertainment migrates to the bedroom, K__ placates herself with the knowledge that it takes less than 20 minutes to drive to CVS and get a Covid test. She makes her paramours get tested too, at least if she plans on seeing them again. In the dating app profiles in her geographical region, it’s not uncommon to see people posting photos of their most recent negative test results alongside the home gym selfies. She now gets Covid tests more regularly than she gets manicures. In fact, she doesn’t get manicures anymore. “I’d never go to a nail salon,” she’s said. “Too risky!”

Last week in the New York Times, writer Farhad Manjoo incurred the wrath of countless readers after publishing an article that fessed up to a particularly egregious example of the chaotic Covid calculus. After embarking on a painstaking contact tracing project, Manjoo discovered a sphere of exposure much larger than previously realized. The result was not to tamp down his holiday plans, but an elaborate set of justifications for traveling — with wife and kids — many hours away to spend Thanksgiving with extended family.

“All of my indirect contacts are taking the virus seriously — none of them spun conspiracy theories about the pandemic, or suggested it was no big deal or told me to bug off and mind my own business, ” Manjoo wrote. “None of them were beyond risk, but I was also satisfied that they seemed to be doing the best they could to avoid getting sick. […] So, after thinking long and hard about this, and after extended conversations with my eager parents, my wife and I decided that we would travel for Thanksgiving.”

The blowback was swift and rancorous. The usual accusations from the playbook of pandemic shaming — selfishness, privilege top among them — were hurled with the usual force. Within a day, an editorial note had been added to the top of the article saying that the article had been “updated to include additional information on the author’s plans.” It wasn’t immediately clear what the updates were, nor was there any indication that Manjoo had canceled any plans. Instead, the invective continued to pile up in the form of outraged tweets and reader comments. As is often the case with pandemic shaming, it’s not just the sin that’s up for reproach but the fact that the sin has been publicly admitted to.

“Not only have you made this reckless choice, but you have chosen to share it and your rationalization with millions of readers,” wrote a commenter. Others pleaded with Manjoo to change course. One compared the article to last summer’s notorious — and later retracted — op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for military crackdowns on peripheral rioting and looting amid the George Floyd protests.

Whatever one thinks of Manjoo’s choice, it’s important to remember that even though our individual choices affect lots of people, each of us is still just one individual making our own set of choices. I’m not in a position to evaluate Manjoo’s travel risks any more than I’m in a position to evaluate my friend’s dating risks.

There may be a baseline set of recommendations that reasonable people can more or less agree on — wear masks, wash hands, don’t rent out your local banquet hall for your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary (or for any reason) — but beyond that, the science is still so unclear and the information is so much in flux that we’re all just essentially left with our own private interpretive dances. (Or in the case of New York City public schools, an interpretive dance in which everyone is supposed to follow the mayor’s lead, despite his questionable sense of rhythm.)

That said, it’s worth remembering that, as restricted as we may feel, there are some activities that we now know to be relatively safe. Contact tracing in several major cities has found that public transportation doesn’t appear to be the superspreader that we once feared it was — especially now that people are wearing masks and ridership is down. Even Anthony Fauci has said that he still goes out and gets haircuts, albeit not as frequently as in the past. As restricted as we are, we’re not immobilized. We can still go outdoors, greet our neighbors on the sidewalk, hug our pets even if we can’t hug our friends. If we’re lucky enough to have a car and the opportunity to drive alone in it, we can do so, unmasked, while screaming in rage at the unending misery of all of this.

In the end, though, as bad an idea as it probably is to drive that car — or take any other means of transit — to grandma’s house this week, plenty of us will find ways to make the math work nonetheless. Denial, like Thanksgiving, is an American tradition.

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