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COVID Risk Communication: Enabling Risk Comparisons

This article published today (Critics said the flu kills more than coronavirus. Why that's not a fair comparison -- and now, it's not even true) is correct in that COVID has a (likely) higher death rate, and that it is more contagious than flu, for the reasons that are mentioned. But two key distinctions must be made.

First, we have to acknowledge that for any pathogen, R0 (the 'contagiousness factor'), is dynamic. There are many reasons why it changes, with human activity chief among them.

And second, the dynamic and often cyclical nature of disease containment is the reason why incremental societal reopening frameworks, like the one proposed by Ben Ryan, Deon Canyon, and myself (, include for specific actions individuals and businesses can take at different levels of risk to help maintain an R0 value that is closer to or even lower than flu than we might see by simply foregoing any controls at all.

Implementation of such arrangements is not possible unless reporting supports an accurate assessment of risk. All of life entails risk, and we can't effectively manage any one risk in a vacuum. There are costs and benefits that must both be considered, and the total impact of management must be considered within the greater context of our individual and community risk profiles. It is no secret that driving causes more societal harm on a given year than influenza does (most years over 25-30,000 people are killed in car accidents, and millions injured), and in fact without significant risk reduction measures these numbers would likely be many times greater. Yet we accept the exposure to such risk because car travel is a societal necessity. Our approach is thus a balanced one. Though closing society on account of COVID has significant public health benefits, we've seen that the costs make such an option unrealistic. And much like we manage transportation risk through regulations on automobile safety, roadway safety, and other provisions, we must find a balanced approach to COVID-19 that enables the functioning of society while limiting death and illness to the greatest practical extent. Choosing an approach that fails to find balance between risk and reward ignores the most fundamental risk management lessons. For more on why a balanced approach is important, see:


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