Better Understand Your COVID Risk With This App

Better Understand Your COVID Risk With This App
Photo: eldar nurkovic, Shutterstock

We’ve all have to make judgment calls about what activities we can participate in these days, and which ones we should decline. But a new app makes those decisions more straightforward: Whether it’s shopping in a store, partying with friends, or working out, MyCovidRisk helps you figure out just how likely you’ll be to find yourself exposed to the coronavirus.

The smartest thing this app does, in my opinion, is ask you for your location. (It only works in the U.S. right now.) Your risk of contracting COVID-19 depends a lot on how much coronavirus is around you, a fact that’s easy to forget if you’re just thinking about safety as a result of the actions you take. A family gathering may be at a completely different risk level if it occurs in the middle of a hotspot versus an area whose cases and per cent-positive are very low.

The tracker, created at Brown University, asks a few questions about the activity in question. Let’s say I want to get my hair cut. I enter: indoor, hair salon, 30 minutes, and make a guess about how many people will be there. (Let’s say 10.) Then comes a question about how many people will be wearing masks. People in my area are pretty good with this, so I go with 90% just in case. The app tells me this is a “medium risk” activity in my location.

Then there’s a button to lower your risk, where you can get specific about things like what kind of mask you’ll be wearing. You also have the opportunity to adjust some of the parameters, like reduce the amount of time you’ll be there. If I say I’ll be wearing an N95 and will wash my hands frequently, I get a reading of “low risk.”

This risk tool is not a guarantee of anything, and it can’t possibly account for every variable that increases or decreases your risk. But it’s a pretty good start, and it accounts for some of the things we now know about how the coronavirus seems to be transmitted by aerosols. For example, the size of a room and the type of ventilation matter.

If your desired activity isn’t in the tool as a preset, you can also build your own, specifying the size of the space. I ran several of my regular activities through the app. There is a gym I go to occasionally; I got “medium risk” with the preset and “low risk” when I entered some more specific data. Going for an outdoor run, maskless but unlikely to encounter many people, rated as “low.” On the other hand, visiting family — maskless, indoors, even just a few of us — rated as “high risk,” which I would say is accurate if you don’t know how likely it is that the other folks have been exposed.

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