If you’re over 75, catching covid-19 can be like playing Russian rouletteNiall Firthon July 5, 2020 at 8:15 am

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On Twitter, some readers complained that average risks don’t tell them much about how to think or act. They have a point. What’s a real-life risk that’s similar to a 1.45% chance of dying? It wasn’t easy to think of one, since mathematically, you can’t encounter such a big risk very often. Skydiving, maybe? According to the US Parachute Association, there’s just one fatality for every 220,301 jumps. It would take 3,200 jumps to equal the average risk of death from covid.

Risk perceptions differ, but it’s the immense difference in IFR risk for the young (under 25) and the elderly (over 75) that really should complicate the reopening discussion. Judging from the New York data, Grandpa’s death chances from infection are 1,000 times that of Junior. So yes, we need schools to keep kids occupied, learning, and healthy. And for them, thank goodness, the chances of death are very low. But reopening schools and colleges has the ugly side effect that those with the lowest risk could be, in effect, putting a gun to the head of those with the highest (although there is still we do not know about how transmissible the virus is among children).

Decent odds

The virus is now spreading fast again in the US, after the country failed to settle on a strong mitigation plan. At the current rate of spread–40,000 confirmed cases a day (and maybe five to 10 times that in reality)–it’s only two years until most people in the US have been infected. It means we’re pointed toward what, since the outset, has been seen as the worst-case scenario: a couple of hundred million infected and a quarter-million deaths.

By now you might be wondering what your own death risk is. Online, you can find apps that will calculate it, like one at covid19survivalcalculator.com, which employs odds ratios from the World Health Organization. I gave it my age, gender, body mass index, and underlying conditions and learned that my overall death risk was a bit higher than the average. But the site also wanted to account for my chance of getting infected in the first place. After I told it I was social distancing and mostly wearing a mask, and my rural zip code, the gadget thought I had only a 5% of getting infected.

I clicked, the page paused, and the final answer appeared: “Survival Probability: 99.975%”.

Those are odds I can live with. And that’s why I am not leaving the house.

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