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What is my risk? How to use COVID-19 data to stay safe

May 23, 2022 | COVID-19 vaccine, Latest News, Public Health

Hand holding cell phone with Washington state's COVID-19 data highlighting each county on the phone's screen. Blue virus spores float in the background.
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In earlier days of the pandemic, looking at the number of COVID-19 cases in our community and whether it was rising or falling was a reliable indicator of risk. But that has changed. Case numbers are not as reliable now because a lot of people are testing positive with home tests and they are not always reported to public health.

COVID-19 is still present in our community, and now we have multiple tools to fight infection and slow the spread. We have widely accessible and highly effective vaccines, proven interventions like masking and distancing, and treatments that are becoming more available every day.

Another source for decision-making is scientific and statistical data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Washington Department of Health (DOH) offer multiple data resources that can help you make choices about day-to-day activities.

But first, know there is a lot of data. And you might wonder, “Where do I even start?”

 

CDC’s community-level data

In earlier days of the pandemic, looking at the number of COVID-19 cases in our community and whether it was rising or falling was a reliable indicator of risk. But that has changed. Case numbers are not as reliable now because a lot of people are testing positive with home tests and they are not always reported to public health.

That is why the CDC started adding another factor into the mix: hospital data. By measuring COVID-19-related hospitalizations with newly reported case numbers, the CDC rates individual counties with low (green), medium (yellow) or high (orange) levels of COVID-19 spread.

Screenshot of BFHD's dashboard showing COVID-19 activity; a blue box circles the right half of the image illustrating COVID-19 community levels as low

Fig. 1 shows the risk of COVID-19 spread in our area on of May 20, 2022. According to CDC guidelines, Benton and Franklin counties levels are ‘Low’ (green). Click image to view current data (updated Tuesdays and Thursdays).

Benton-Franklin Health District publishes this data on the case count web page summary tab, as shown in Fig. 1 highlighted with a blue box.  You can also go to the CDC’s community-level webpage and enter the state and county. The CDC site offers guidance for each risk level. If the community level is high, for example, wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status (including in K-12 schools and other indoor community settings). If the community level is medium, and if you are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease, consider masking and taking additional precautions. To dig deeper into our county’s COVID-19 situation, use the CDC’s Integrated County View and again enter your state and county. The results on this page also include a variety of interactive tools and data for vaccination and booster rates, testing, hospitalizations, and deaths in our county.

If the community level is green (low), it doesn’t mean COVID-19 is not circulating in your area, but it means if you do get COVID-19 and you get sick, there is likely a hospital bed available. Medium or high community levels mean hospital capacity is stretched thin, and you should consider wearing a mask in public or limiting social gatherings.

 

BFHD’s website offers additional data to help measure personal risk

  • Hospitals – BFHD hospitalization dashboard shows rates of COVID-19-related hospitalization rate and 7-day average occupancy.
  • County data – BFHD also offers a regularly updated case rates and deaths.
  • Wastewater – Wastewater analysis is a good indicator of community spread because it doesn’t rely on COVID-19 test results or hospital data. Carriers of the COVID-19 virus shed virus particles in their urine and feces, so even if people don’t have symptoms or access to testing, BFHD wastewater data will still show whether the virus is present in a community – and if it’s spreading. And because people are often infected with COVID-19 a few days before they feel symptomatic, new case numbers tend to lag behind wastewater data by three to five days. So, if virus levels are increasing in the wastewater, that could mean more people will soon test positive.
  • Vaccination rates –If you are up to date on your vaccinations (initial series plus booster(s)), and you know that most of the people around you are as well, you might feel safer in indoor public spaces. The DOH website shows vaccination and booster rates by state and county.

How to use all this data

To determine personal COVID-19 risk, you can start with CDC’s community-level tool to determine whether the county poses a low, medium, or high risk. Then look at the wastewater data. Example shown Fig. 2, highlighted with a yellow box.

Screenshot of BFHD's dashboard illustrating recent Wastewater Testing data; a transparent yellow rectangle highlights the majority of the image

Fig. 2: 7-day average of COVID-19 concentrations in local wastewater on 5/20/22. Click for current data (updated Thursdays) on page 7 of 8 on dashboard.

If, for example, the CDC shows the county at “low” community spread, but wastewater data show virus levels rising, you may still feel comfortable going to a movie, but you may want to consider wearing a mask.

How to absorb available data from multiple sources and use it to make safety decisions for yourself and your community is not an exact science.

No one layer of protection – masks, social distancing, vaccines, etc. – is perfect. But. If you layer COVID-19 protections, such as getting all your recommended vaccine doses and wearing a mask indoors, for instance – your protection level rises. If you’re vaccinated but don’t wear a mask indoors, your protection level is lower.

In any given situation, consider having three or four layers of protection. That could include wearing a mask indoors around other people, making sure a space is well-ventilated, rapid testing right before an event, or not attending social events if cases are rising.

Asking yourself certain questions can help you assess your personal risk based on established pandemic guidelines, as well as your own comfort level. These questions will not apply to everyone, but they may help you decide whether to participate in social events or wear a mask in public spaces going forward.

 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have any conditions that may increase my risk of severe illness from COVID-19? That can include diabetes, chronic illnesses, taking medication that weakens the immune system, and more. If so, health experts highly recommend you continue to wear a mask in public places. See a complete list of risk factors on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
    What is my risk? How to use COVID-19 data to stay safe

    [ Click to enlarge ]

  • Am I up to date on my COVID-19 vaccinations? If not, health experts highly recommend you continue to wear a mask in public places.
  • Am I unvaccinated? If not, health experts highly recommend you continue to wear a mask in public places.
  • If I were to become infected with the COVID-19 virus, can I take 5–10 days off work while I isolate, which is recommended by the CDC? If not, you may want to mask up to protect against infection.
  • Do I live in a multi-generational household? If so, check out this guide to living safely together.

When attending an event, running an errand or otherwise being around other people, ask yourself:

  • Is the event indoors or outdoors? COVID-19 is less likely to spread outdoors. Also, as indoor masking requirements lift, you will likely encounter indoor spaces where only a few people are wearing a mask. You might want to carry a mask with you just in case.
  • Does attending the event require proof of vaccination and booster doses? If so, how is that policy being enforced? Some event venues in the state may check vaccination status at the door, while some rely on people disclosing their vaccination status honestly. If you’ve been invited to a gathering at someone’s home, it’s OK to ask them whether they’re requiring guests to be vaccinated.
  • Does the location require a negative COVID-19 test? Some may require a PCR test or some may accept either a PCR test or a rapid antigen test. Both tests are accurate at catching positive COVID-19 cases, but both can also give false negative results, especially rapid antigen tests.
  • If I were to become infected with the COVID-19 virus, who might I risk spreading the virus to? If you live with or plan to visit other people, consider their risk levels. Are they immunocompromised? Are they older than 65? Are they too young to be vaccinated or unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons? If so, you might want to limit your risk by masking in indoor places or avoiding large indoor crowds.

If your job requires you to interact with the public or sit in an office, here are some ways to better protect yourself:

  • Get vaccinated if not already.
  • Stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccine doses. People who have received all recommended doses (including booster doses) are many times less likely to get extremely sick or require hospitalization if infected.
  • Wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask like an N95 or KN95 while at work.

Adapted from Oregon Health Authority

 

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