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The importance of fixing bad COVID math

Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with data. Infection rates. Hospitalization rates. 14 day moving averages. Data about masks. About vaccines.

So much data. And yet:

"The public has a very weak understanding of the factual basis of the risks," Jonathan Rothwell says.

A misunderstanding that can then misshape policies.

"We’re still trying to deduce from these groups that are really non-comparable. That is absolutely bananas," Leslie Bienen, faculty at Portland State University, says.

Today, On Point: The importance of fixing COVID math.


Nick Melvoin, vice president at the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. (@nickmelvoin)

Tracy Høeg, physician. Author of the article "How to Fix Our Broken Relationship with COVID Math." (@TracyBethHoeg)

Jonathan Rothwell, principal economist at Gallup. (@jtrothwell)

Also Featured

Jenny Hontz, parent of a LAUSD student.

Allison Schrager, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. (@AllisonSchrager)

Eric Happel, parent and member of ED300, a network of 30,000 Oregon families devoted to reopening Oregon schools and sports.

Interview Highlights

What is the thesis about the importance of fixing our broken relationship with COVID math? 

Tracy Høeg: "Basically, our impression — and my co-author is Leslie Bienin and Eric Happel — is that we in the United States, the public has a warped sense of risk ... in terms of the risks that COVID posed to people of different ages. So there is a very steep age gradient for COVID and risk. So per infection, if you look at it, children have a one in 500 to one in 1,000 risk of hospitalization. Where someone over 80 has a 29% risk of hospitalization, if infected. So it's a multi-thousand fold risk of difference in terms of mortality. And this has not been really expressed to the public. And same with the incredible effectiveness of vaccines in terms of preventing severe disease.

"So we were concerned that the American people, the public were not getting accurate information in terms of how to assess risk. And we're rather basing risk on anecdotes and stories that tried to create fear rather than actual data. So we wanted to create some rules for both public health agencies and for media outlets, in terms of reporting the data more accurately. And sort of conveying when there is a higher amount of risk, and when there's a lower amount of risk."

On how the L.A. country school board calculates risk during COVID

Nick Melvoin: "It was rather challenging. And that goes back to my earlier point about the district not being a public health agency. And so we were looking at the county numbers, the city numbers, the state numbers. And I will say those weren't always the same numbers. And when you looked at positive cases out of 100,000, or the rolling 14-day average, they didn't exactly match, and that it was at its most inane, I think, when we had a series of overlapping color-coded systems from the state and the county when we could open. So we were in the red tier, the purple tier and in California, the purple tier was even worse than the red tier and people were confused about that.

"And it didn't — to your guests earlier point — necessarily differentiate between children's data, and adult data and what we were seeing in schools versus in the community. Also, COVID rates were one data point, and there were others that I was advocating we looked at. What is the data of academic loss? What is the data of acute kind of mental health challenges we're seeing in students? And how do we put this in context? Because we talked a lot in the spring of 2021 about the risk of reopening schools. We did not talk enough about the risk of keeping schools closed.

"And what were those data points? And that's what we're starting to see now. ... Just to plug the L.A. Times again, there was another article last week about the huge achievement gaps that we're seeing in L.A. schools. Well, these are things that I flagged last year, but the data around academics took a backseat to the data around COVID rates, not inappropriately so. But that was another data point that was muted. And now we're seeing a lot about the data about women in the workforce, about parents who couldn't go back to work until schools were open. So the frustration for me wasn't that the data was conflicting or hard to follow. It was that we were only looking at COVID data. We weren't looking at the other things that are important to families."

On a December poll that revealed a misunderstanding of the number of people hospitalized with COVID

Jonathan Rothwell: "In partnership with the investment firm Franklin Templeton, we've launched a number of surveys last year. And one in December asked U.S. adults to basically give us what percentage of people have been infected by the coronavirus and needed to be hospitalized. The correct answer at the time was between 1% and 5%. There was a little bit of uncertainty within that range.

"But only 18% of all U.S. adults gave the correct answer, and Democrats did much worse than Republicans. Only 10% of Democrats gave the correct answer, compared to 26% of Republicans. And 41% of Democrats said that more than half of people who had been infected by the coronavirus needed to be hospitalized."

What are the implications of that poll?

Jonathan Rothwell: "We asked them about their behaviors and their attitudes. And we've been collecting this data throughout the pandemic. And people who were more wrong about estimating risks, exaggerated the risks, were much more likely to isolate themselves from other people. So they're social distancing more aggressively. They're less likely to be going out shopping, to be going to restaurants in person. They're less likely to be traveling.

"Some people might say, Well, that's a good thing. But it has real economic consequences. And the social distancing has some serious mental health consequences, which we also uncovered in our surveys. And that people who were social distancing [to] a much greater extent, especially if they're social distancing because they don't understand the risks, were more likely to report anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. So there are some real costs to this misinformation."

On the biggest problem with bad COVID math

Tracy Høeg: "Our biggest problems have been basically over-estimating the risk to children and healthy children, and underestimating the risk to older adults with risk factors. And I guess I would add a piece to that is like internationally, when you look at the news, they're much less likely to be negative in terms of COVID as the United States' news has been. ... Especially in Scandinavia and actually a lot of Europe, they've been much quicker to open up with higher adult vaccination rates, despite not all kids being vaccinated yet, because their perception is now we're much lower risk.

"Adults are vaccinated. Kids are not necessarily vaccinated yet, but we know from the data actually from the UK, from our own country, that unvaccinated kids are at similar risk for hospitalization and severe disease as 40 to 60 year old adults who are double vaccinated. And just that simple fact, that would reassure a lot of people. But that's not the information we're getting. We're getting anecdotes like this is one child who's in the hospital, who has severe disease. Rather than looking at the big picture of risk. And not that that child is not important, but that obviously happens with many different diseases. And we need to look at risks and context. And what are the trade offs of keeping kids from having their normal lives? And this is the societal question you're getting to. How can we minimize harm?"

From The Reading List

Persuasion: "How to Fix Our Broken Relationship With COVID Math" — "Throughout the pandemic, Americans have grappled with, and largely failed to make sense of, COVID-19 statistics."

Brookings: "How misinformation is distorting COVID policies and behaviors" — "The COVID-19 pandemic has been far reaching in its effects, but knowledge of key facts about the virus and related perceptions of risk associated with it are far from uniform."

KTLA: "L.A. County announces modified quarantine option for unvaccinated students" — "Los Angeles County public health officials announced Thursday that they’re offering school districts the option to allow unvaccinated students who have come into contact with a positive COVID-19 case to continue attending in-person classes under strict guidelines."

This program aired on October 25, 2021.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Jess Yarmosky Freelance Producer, On Point
Jess Yarmosky was a freelance producer for On Point.



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