The Easiest Way To Double Your Probability of Death This Year
Comparing the Risks from COVID-19 to Extreme Sports (And Other Activities)
I, like many others, have had a hard time gauging the risks associated with COVID-19. The variables involved are complex and cover the risks to my individual life, my community and the world at large. First, there is my risk of death, severe illness or long covid, which are heavily influenced by my demographics and health history. Second, there is the risk that I could spread the virus to someone else who dies or has a severe case — and no decent person wants that hanging over their conscience for the rest of their life. And third, there is the risk that I participate in a prolonged spread of the virus that leads to the evolution of more dangerous variants of the virus.
Across the globe, individual responses to SARS-CoV-2 have spread across a broad spectrum, ranging from absolute terror in some groups — which is entirely justifiable in the highest risk groups — to other groups who deny the dangers associated with the virus altogether. Some people even go so far as to claim that the pathogen doesn’t exist at all; I recently spoke with an ICU nurse in the Midwest who told me that she treated a patient who continued to claim that COVID-19 was a hoax all the way up to their death from the disease. Talk about a bad case of cognitive dissonance. On the other side of the spectrum, I know fully vaccinated people that are young and healthy who are still living in a self-imposed bubble.
This wide-ranging individual response encouraged me to try and see the risk of COVID-19 from a different angle. Is there some kind of solid middle ground to hold? Is there a way to gauge our level of risk in a way that helps us make better decisions? This article is my attempt at doing just that. I will focus on the individual threat each of us faces from COVID and attempt to benchmark it by comparing it to the risk of well-known activities. Now, I’m no doctor; I’m just a lowly MPH, so go easy on me. Some of the numbers I cite below are from scholarly journals but other data sets — particularly the risks associated with extreme sports — were much harder to verify. Still, I think it makes for interesting fodder.
I started this process by quantifying my personal risks from COVID-19. I also decided to focus all of my attention on the most extreme outcome from COVID-19: death. Of course, there will be many other horrifying outcomes from the virus, such as hospitalization and lifelong disability. Still, I had to focus on something, and death seems to be the big kahuna in this conversation.
A Little Background On Me
I am a 36-year-old male who is pretty healthy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I exercise often. By all known measures, I’m not in the high-risk category for COVID-19. I work for an international humanitarian organization that has forced me to become pretty well-versed in the dangers posed to our society by the pandemic. My response to COVID-19 has been one of caution but not intense worry about my personal outcomes. I would prefer not to get the virus, but my greatest concern is spreading it to others who are at higher risk. In practical terms, I’ve adopted a calculated risk-taking approach in which I let the data drive my actions. The evidence is clear that unmasked indoor settings have been the epicenter for most viral spread, but there appears to be little risk of spread when outdoors. With this in mind, I have had no qualms doing just about anything outside without a mask, but I went over a year without eating inside a restaurant.
Some people may find my numbers-driven approach off-putting, but I have developed this strategy in response to my lifelong propensity to engage in hazardous (read, stupid) behavior. Some of the more rash decisions I’ve made in the past have led to working in numerous disaster zones; moving across the country or globe on a whim; or blowing my life savings on startup ventures (sorry, Future-Andrew). So how do I keep this more impulsive side of myself in check? Probabilities! I make myself slow down, look over situations, and look at the chances and possibilities that a decision will lead to economic catastrophe, injury, or death. Then, I see if there is any way I can cut down the likelihood of a negative outcome before going down the path. This process usually keeps me from destroying myself.
[Update: shortly after publishing this piece, I caught COVID-19. In short, it has been very taxing and considering that I am vaccinated, it has been much worse than I thought it would be.]
Quantifying My Risk
One day, while going about my exciting pandemic life of Tiger King, cruising the web and Zoom birthday parties, I stumbled across a social security website. This website showed each person’s risk of death this year — from any cause — broken down by age and sex. For example, my probability of death this year is .2211% (22 out of ten thousand). Essentially this says that if you rented a massive apartment complex and filled it with ten thousand 36-year-old males, you should expect about twenty-two of us to die during that year. These deaths would come from car accidents, suicides, heart attacks, or just about any other way to pass away that you can dream up. I say “just about any other way” because one very note-worthy cause of death was not represented in this dataset: COVID-19. The most recent dataset on the website was from 2016, well before we had even thought of SARS-COV-2, lockdowns, mask mandates, remote work (may it last forever!) and travel bans.
I then remembered that during my day job, I had recently seen some age-delineated case-fatality rates for COVID-19. So I looked up the numbers and saw that if I caught the virus, as a 36-year-old, my chance of death from COVID-19 was .13% (13 out of ten thousand). A little lower than my chance of dying from all other causes combined, but still damn close. These numbers got my wheels turning even more.
What if, in some dark and dystopian future, someone designed a science experiment where they filled a massive apartment complex with ten thousand 36-year-old males for a year AND gave them all COVID-19? Each of the men in the building would receive the standard medical treatment for COVID-19, and we would see where it goes. Over the course of the year, we would expect about 35 out of the ten thousand to die from all causes, including COVID-19.
35 out of 10,000 is still not a tremendous death rate, but it is a 58% increase in the number of expected deaths this year, just by adding one element to the equation: a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. I then tried to compare this increased risk against the risks posed by well-known extreme sports, and I found a pretty good comparison. If instead of giving all the men COVID-19, we instead taught each of them to hang-glide and made sure they continued to hang-glide regularly, we should see about the same number of deaths in the year from all causes (that is, if this website is to be believed). I think it is fair to say that most people have not been hang-gliding for a reason, and that reason is overwhelming terror. There is a genuine and palpable risk when soaring thousands of feet above the ground. But, although the risk is roughly the same, we probably don’t feel the same fear when going to a busy indoor restaurant with an airborne virus floating around.
In general, I don’t think many people would take on a 58% increase in probability for any kind of terrible outcome without trying to mitigate some of the risks. For example, how many business owners would blindly take on a 58% increase in the chance of their business imploding? Would you go on a roller coaster if you had to sign a waiver saying that your probability of death this year would increase by 58%? I doubt it.
Vaccines — Back To The Drawing Board
After going through this thought experiment, I realized that the research seemed to be using numbers from before there was a largescale vaccine-rollout in the United States. By May, it was estimated that COVID-19 vaccines had already prevented up to 140,000 deaths in the USA and the CDC recently said that vaccines make you eleven times less likely to die and ten times less likely to be hospitalized. In my previous thought experiment, I had essentially found the increased risk of death for an unvaccinated 36-year-old male, but I am vaccinated, so the risk of death needed to be adjusted.
I then ran through the apartment experiment one more time, but with 10,000 vaccinated individuals. If vaccination truly lowers the risk of death elevenfold, we would be looking at 23 deaths over the year, and only one of them would be from COVID-19. That is some damn good news for the vaccinated, but the increased risk of death in the next year still goes up by 5.4%. That is much better than the 58% increase for the unvaccinated group but still a very real — if manageable — element of risk.
My Parent’s Risk (And Other Comparisons)
Then I started looking at my parent’s level of risk. What is their increased probability of death if they get COVID-19? My increased risk made me think a bit, but their increased chance of death kept me up at night.
If he catches COVID-19, my unvaccinated, 65-year-old father’s risk of death will go up by 181%. That would be roughly equivalent to his increase in the probability of death if he took up a heroin addiction AND started base jumping. If you don’t know what base jumping is, it is the absolutely bonkers sport of jumping off of very tall, fixed objects and deploying a parachute after a period of freefall. For a good overview of what base jumping looks like, check out the video below with some insane jumps but try to ignore the ridiculous animated cat host. You would think my father was quite the daredevil in his old age by taking on this kind of risk, but that isn’t the case. He took many risks in his younger years, but the last stunt I remember him doing was when he took my brand-new skateboard for a spin on my 8th birthday. This Evel Knievel act ended with him writhing in pain on the ground with a shattered elbow in a soon-to-be-infamous Bank of America parking lot (not long afterward, in that same parking lot, the largest shootout in US Police history took place). While I haven’t seen him do any stunts since that day, apparently, his risk-taking nature remains fully intact. If nothing else, I think I have discovered where I inherited some of my less-than-stellar decision-making from. Thanks, Dad…
My vaccinated, 62-year-old mother’s risk of death would rise by about 33.2% if she contracted COVID-19. Her added risk would be roughly three times that of the probability of death if she picked up motorcycle racing as a new hobby. While her vaccine status provides quite a lot of protection and decreased risk, her likelihood of death if she contracted COVID-19 would still be more than twice that of an unvaccinated person my age. Facts like these should help younger vaccinated individuals have some empathy for the older generations. If you were ever worried about your chance of death, think about your parents, who, even if vaccinated, still have a greater risk of death than you had at the beginning of the pandemic.
After looking at my parent’s risk of death, I decided to check over a few other age brackets. I saw that unvaccinated individuals from 70–79 years old — and there are a lot of them in the USA — are increasing their risk of death to a similar amount as if they were to climb above 6,000 meters (~20,000 feet) up in the Himalayan Mountains. I’m having a hard time imagining hundreds of thousands or millions of boomers climbing up beyond the base camp of Mount Everest, but apparently, they are ready to take on the challenge. Another interesting comparison was that unvaccinated individuals from 50–59 years old and vaccinated individuals from 70–79 infected with COVID-19 had roughly the same probability of death as a heroin addict. Also of note was that an unvaccinated 48 year old who gets COVID-19 would see their likelihood of death this year roughly double. Similarly, an unvaccinated 66 year old will see their probability of death triple.
Where To From Here?
As I finish writing this, I am on a plane to Corpus Christi, Texas, to help run a vaccination center in a county whose public health department is overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. This is the second time I’ve gone to Corpus Christi this year; the first time was to set up tent hospitals for overflowing hospitals. While I’ve tried to approach this article with a lighthearted style, I am very serious about COVID-19 and the pandemic in general. It’s impossible not to take it seriously when you work with doctors and nurses who have stepped up to fill the gaps in the front lines. I can tell you from a first-person perspective that it is humbling, and it is the most incredible honor to see heroes in action. I do hope that, if nothing else, this article makes you think about what you can do to help get our country and world through this crisis. And if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, I urge you to get your first shot tomorrow.
I hope you enjoyed this way of looking at the risks associated with COVID-19. Here’s to the health and safety of our loved ones, our nation and our world.
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- I relied on this infographic to compare the risk of activities like hang-gliding, base jumping, and motorcycle racing. Unfortunately, I could not verify all the data since some of the reference links were broken.
- This article does not include the added risks of certain pre-existing conditions or differences in risk based on gender
- This article does not take into account the added risk from the Delta variant or other variants
- Since the probability of death from COVID-19 comes in 10-year increments, the data may be skewed if someone is at the very lower or higher range of their age bracket
- Since the covid-19 data I used groups all people over 80 years old into one group and the social security data is broken down by individual year up to 119 years old, the data gets very hard to compare at the upper end. As you can imagine, a person who is 119-years-old has roughly an 89% chance of dying from anything BUT COVID-19, so these people skew the data so much as to make it incomparable. This is why I stopped at age 79.