How to assess the risks of different activities

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As the holiday season approaches, many Americans are having to figure out whether or not it is safe for them to participate in their usual traditions.

“I think the challenge is we’ve kind of taken this binary approach to risk early on, and it’s just not the case,” said Dr. Saskia Popescu, Term Assistant Professor in the Biodefense Program in the School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “What we are seeing is a spectrum. Some things are higher risk than others, but to me the most important thing is risk awareness.”

Dr. Popesku says instead of designating some activities as off-limits and others as safe, we should be consistently evaluating our environments and the precautions being taken.

The main factors to consider are whether you are indoors or outdoors (which can impact ventilation and your ability to distance yourself from others), the amount of people around you, whether or not those people are wearing their masks and yelling or shouting and finally, how long you plan to stay for.

Dr. Popesku says when you evaluate activities along those guidelines, it makes it clear why a typical bar environment is high risk, whereas sitting at a restaurant outdoors and away from others is lower risk.

Some of these factors have changed since the pandemic first started.

“We are learning new things every single day,” she said. “You have to lean in to the changes. The better we get at understanding transmission, the more things are going to change and evolve.”

For example, early on in the pandemic many physicians were advising people to wipe down their groceries and mail before bringing it inside the house. However, researchers now understand that while the virus can surface on surfaces, the risk of becoming infected this way is low.

The basic advice to protect yourself from transmission now involves social distancing, wearing a mask, avoiding indoor gatherings and keeping your hands clean.

And Dr. Popesku says it is important for people to remember that risk reduction is additive.

“For some reason we see all of these things as just a singular prevention strategy, but they all have to work together,” she said. That means that while socializing outdoors instead of indoors can lower your risk, it is even better if everyone is also distanced from one another and wearing a mask.

“It’s that swiss cheese approach, where one layer is imperfect but if we add them all together that brings us the best chance of success and helps reduce risk as much as we can.”