One of my favorite times of the year is when the weather finally starts to get nice in upstate New York. All I want to do is be outside and gather with friends and family. This year is different though. I will be missing many of my traditional summer events such as parades, annual parties, and family reunions due to COVID-19. Recent articles about clusters of cases at a high school swim party in Arkansas, a house party in Minnesota, a birthday party in California, and a church in Arkansas show that group gatherings can be especially problematic since many people are exposed at once. But what is ok to do?
I am feeling confused about what is safe and what is risky, especially because we currently have someone who is at risk for complications living in our home. Guidance about actions we can all take to reduce our risk has been changing over time. This is not because the science has been wrong, but rather because the scientists have continued to learn more. It was easier when the guidance was to ‘stay home’. That message was clear. But now, as things start to open back up, there has been confusion about what can open and how, what is ok to do, and how we can still be safe while expanding our activities and social interactions.
In public health we talk about something called “harm reduction”. It means that we try to reduce the harm that may occur from health behaviors that can put people at risk. Julia Marcus, a professor at Harvard Medical School, discussed this concept of harm reduction and the need for providing a spectrum of risk in her article about ‘quarantine fatigue’ in The Atlantic.
Trying to understand this range of risks can be difficult. There have been a number of useful articles recently written about levels of risk as life opens back up. Some are listed here.
The Dear Pandemic Facebook page has been providing some useful info about various activities. And the infographic below is just one that has been created to help show how risk changes based on activities. These visuals can be especially helpful when trying to convey a range of risks. But even among all of these resources and experts, there is still conflicting information and differences of opinion.
Dr. James Stein says in his article “I can’t decide that level of risk for you — only you can make that decision.” This is true. We all have to decide what risks we are comfortable taking. For many the risks a person is willing to (or has to) take may be influenced by several factors including their job, how they get to work, characteristics such as age and pre-existing health conditions, and characteristics of those they are close to. It will also depend on their attitudes about COVID-19, such as what they think about their likelihood of getting it or how bad it will be if they do get it. While we will all make individual choices about risk, it is important to also respect others and to make choices that will avoid putting other people at risk, such as going to a group gathering when you are feeling sick.
It can be uncomfortable and frustrating to feel like the information we get is always changing, or that we see different recommendations. Expect that information about risks will continue to change as we learn more. As things open up, it is likely we will see outbreaks due to certain activities or events that will help the experts continue to refine what they know about the risk of different activities and behaviors. Staying informed with credible information sources and asking our health providers questions can help us feel better able to make decisions as we set out to enjoy summer.