To check these types of websites, “you have to be interested,” says Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And if you’re already someone who thinks this is important, and you’re checking out your numbers of cases per 100,000,” you’re probably already doing all the right things when it comes to social distancing.
Some health departments are stepping up their communications, holding Facebook Live events and press conferences in which they urge people to avoid indoor gatherings. The Kansas City, Missouri, health department has produced videos showing how easily coronavirus spreads. (Still, illustrating the limits of social media, the first reply to a tweet with one of its videos is: “Masks don’t do anything.”)
In Chicago, the public-health department has developed a tool that can help people decide whether a gathering is safe through questions such as “Is everyone healthy?” and “Can you always keep a 6-foot distance?” Commissioner Allison Arwady has also been hosting regular Facebook Lives in which she answers questions from the public, and she hosts a weekly press conference in which she often highlights stories of individuals who caught coronavirus at a small gathering. She’s running focus groups with Black and Latino Chicagoans to test messages that might resonate with them. But, she acknowledges, not every health department has the money or manpower to do all this.
Together with her colleagues at Brown, Ranney has developed a free app called My COVID Risk that will allow users to input the type of activity they want to do, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, how many people will be there, what protective measures they’ll take, and where they live, along with other factors. The app will then generate a relative risk of catching coronavirus at that activity—from “very low” to “very high”—using community-level data from The New York Times’s coronavirus map. People can modify their risk level by reducing the number of people, for example, or adding a mask requirement. “Given the lack of clear national guidelines on what’s safe and not safe, our hope is that this will fill a void for the average American who’s really struggling to judge the safety of various activities,” Ranney told me.
Still, Ranney says, this app is the kind of thing the federal government really should have developed by now. It’s odd that in a wealthy, industrialized country, a random researcher is the one designing a tool to keep citizens safe from public-health threats, using data she scraped from a newspaper.
These efforts are commendable, but experts agree that they should be publicized by officials at the federal level, so that all Americans know how to find and use them. Some have even advocated for a national system of COVID-19 risk levels that could tell Americans when it’s safe to, say, visit with friends outside, versus shelter in place, versus live normally. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said, the agency “consistently educates the public on the three W’s, advising Americans to: Watch your distance, Wear a mask when you can’t watch your distance, and Wash your hands.”