How to measure your Covid risk level these days: Track these 4 metrics

For more than two years, most people have understood the course of the pandemic based on the daily count of new Covid-19 infections.

Now, experts say, daily case counts don’t mean what they used to mean – making it a much more flawed metric. People should still take precautions against Covid, but for an otherwise healthy person, the average case isn’t nearly as severe as it used to be: The majority of Americans are now vaccinated, and newer variants and subvariants are causing less severe forms of the disease.

That’s good news, of course, but it makes it harder to assess your pandemic risk these days. When is indoor dining a safe bet and when should you order takeout? Should you go to the cinema this weekend or wait until the current Covid wave subsides?

Daily case counts can no longer answer these questions alone. Luckily, experts say there are a number of metrics you can track alongside daily cases to help you make these kinds of informed decisions. Here’s what you need to know:

The daily case count can still be useful

dr Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, says daily case counts can still be useful — as long as you know how to read them.

First, focus on local cases in your area rather than national data “because the timing of different peaks and valleys varies from place to place,” Noymer tells CNBC Make It. You can local Covid data on the Covid Data Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) trackers at the county level and most state and county public health websites.

From there, Noymer recommends “looking at trends” — like comparing cases from one week to the next — rather than the specific numbers.

“If it gets worse, we should change our behavior,” he says. “At this point, people should definitely consider masking in indoor public spaces. It’s relatively easy and we know it works.”

You should also track hospitalizations and ICU numbers

Hospitalization statistics – including the number of people in intensive care units (ICU) – are an indication of the severity of Covid-19 infections in your area. But don’t take them at face value, says Noymer: These statistics include what are known as “side cases,” which occur “when a person is hospitalized for something else, like a hernia repair, and then tests positive for Covid.”

For this reason, Noymer recommends looking at hospitalization and intensive care unit numbers together. In Orange County, California, where he lives, hospital admissions have “swelled” lately, while ICU numbers have been “fairly low and stable,” he says. “I’ve used that to conclude that most of the many hospital admissions are actually coincidences and Covid infections are not as severe as before.”

You may also want to monitor local hospitalization and intensive care unit numbers for your specific age group to better assess your personal risk at any time. It’s a tactic used by Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency room physician at Tampa General Hospital and a professor at the University of South Florida, who says it can help you “get a sense of how serious cases are at any given time.”

You probably don’t need to pay close attention to mortality rates when assessing your current risk. They’re a “lagging indicator,” Noymer says — meaning they’re better at showing how bad the pandemic was a few weeks ago than it is now.

The Percent Positive metric can also be useful with small doses

Throughout the pandemic, the percentage of positives – also known as the “positivity rate” – has been used to estimate the severity of a Covid-19 outbreak in a given location.

There is a common misconception that the number refers to the percentage of people who have tested positive for Covid out of an entire population. In reality, it is the percentage of people who have tested positive out of the number of people who have been tested.

That makes it a difficult statistic to interpret. At the beginning of the pandemic, every test result was reported to authorities like the CDC. Now, the test numbers sent to government agencies come largely from the PCR tests people take to confirm their positive test results at home.

Percentage positive rates can also have different meanings in different places depending on the prevalence of Covid testing in different parts of the US. So to learn the best of this metric, Noymer suggests examining how it changes “over relatively short periods of time in the same place.”

In other words, the actual numbers for this metric aren’t really helpful. Instead, pay attention to whether the positivity rate in your area is rising or falling from week to week.

Think of these metrics like the weather

Going forward, Wilson suggests using Covid metrics like a weather forecast: not a guarantee, but a tool to assess your risk and take the necessary precautions.

Get in the habit of reviewing these Covid measures regularly, he says – especially if Covid illness and the quarantine would interfere with your forthcoming plans. After all, you wouldn’t even consult the weather report and then assume conditions will stay the same for the rest of the month.

Similarly, Wilson says, reviewing multiple Covid metrics provides a more complete picture of your risk, as looking at temperature, humidity and forecast precipitation tells more about the weather than temperature alone.

“This is a good analogy for how we’re likely to deal with Covid in the indefinite future,” he says. “It will help us make sensible decisions.”

Wilson recommends bookmarking the CDC’s data tracker at the county level. Enter your state and then your county to see a page of Covid metrics along with a dashboard showing a color-coded risk level – green for low, yellow for medium, orange for high – and recommended precautions for each level.

“It’s a quick tool that can help you understand how to be a little safer at any given moment,” says Wilson. “If I look at the CDC dashboard and see orange, I put on a mask when I go indoors.”

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