New online tools help assess COVID-19 risks

People can use the COVID-Taser website to predict their likelihood of serious illness or death

Are you more likely to die from COVID-19 or in a car accident? A new risk assessment tool can help you figure this out.

Created by Cameron Byerley at the University of Georgia, the online tool is called COVID-Taser, and it allows users to adjust age, vaccination status and medical history to predict risk from the virus.

Byerley, an assistant professor at UGA’s Mary Frances Early College of Education, said most people assess risk based on their experience of the world.

“For example, if you are trying to figure out how dangerous driving is, you might think that out of all your friends and family, you know two people who have died from driving in the past 20 years. . So it’s pretty risky to wear a seatbelt and drive sober, but it’s not so risky not to drive to a friend’s house.

This way of thinking helps people compare unknown risks with the known risks they interact with on a daily basis. The COVID-Taser capitalizes on these comparisons to give people a better idea of ​​their risks of dying from COVID-19 or having adverse side effects from vaccination. Website visitors can then see how these risks compare to others, such as dying in a car accident or being struck by lightning in their lifetime.

Sponsored by a rapid grant from the National Science Foundation, the website is part of a larger project that aims to study how people interpret media using representations of quantitative data like graphs and tables.

Understanding the health risks of COVID-19

After conducting surveys in the United States and South Korea, the team created several tools and a series of K-12 lesson plans to help citizens and students use mathematical representations of COVID-19 to take data-based decisions about their health.

“A big goal of the project is to think about how to communicate information,” Byerley said. “We’re really interested in risk communication and providing information so people can make decisions for themselves by comparing COVID risks and vaccination risks to more familiar risks that they have an idea of. »

People can also use the relative risk tool to switch between different ages to see how the risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 changes across age groups.

Additionally, the tool can be used to compare the risk of dying from the coronavirus for vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, as well as for unvaccinated people with various health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis and other immunosuppressive conditions.

“My dream goal is for people to see that the risk of vaccination is low compared to other risks they’re willing to take,” Byerley said. “They’ll see that vaccination is safer than driving, pregnancy, professional football and just safer than a lot of the things they’re already prepared to do. It’s also much, much safer than getting a COVID infection…the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

Byerley is currently working to incorporate information about immunocompromised people who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated into the relative risk tool.

Explain the impact of masks and social distancing in the fight against coronavirus

The COVID-Taser Projection Tool, which was designed to explain patterns from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), is an educational resource that teaches people the difference between cumulative deaths, which is the number total people who died and a figure that will always increase over time, and average daily deaths, which may increase or decrease over time.

Byerley noted that the media is confusing when it includes graphs labeled “total deaths” with numbers decreasing over time when they really should be labeled “average daily deaths” because the total number of deaths cannot decrease. .

In addition to showing the total number of deaths and daily deaths separately on the projection tool, the IHME models also predict how deaths will increase or decrease in the United States depending on whether mask mandates are implemented.

“We want people to understand what a pattern is and how it’s kind of like what’s happening on your phone when you use Google Maps to predict how long a trip will take, which is based on a kind of algorithm,” Byerley said. “It’s usually pretty good, but it’s never perfect and it changes. So we want people to understand that epidemiological modeling is very useful, even if these estimates are not perfect. They always help people plan and are useful tools.

The IHME model predicted that amid the pandemic, non-mandated areas involving masks, large gatherings and closures would likely see an increase in daily deaths. On the other hand, if mask mandates were implemented across the United States, the model predicted that daily deaths would decline. These predictions were tested by varying death rates in states and other countries with different public health policies.

While the models aren’t exact, they still show the impact of masking and vaccination on reducing COVID-19 deaths, Byerley said.

“I hope these tools can serve as a model for medical communication,” Byerley said. “And when numbers are hard for people to understand, it helps them see the relative size of things even if they don’t know percentages or place values ​​or information like school. I want these tools to help people understand that the risk of COVID infection is worse than the risk of vaccination and the risk of vaccination is lower than other things they are already doing.

Melvin G. Rodriguez