What exactly does it mean that Ashland and Bayfield counties are considered to have “very high” COVID-19 activity?

How risky is it for me to attend a wedding or birthday party, or to go out to eat or stop at a bar for a couple of drinks with friends?

Local health officials have kept their guidance on these matters pretty general — wear masks, avoid gatherings, etc. But a lot of us want something more specific than that — and if we can visualize it, all the better.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory heard those calls, and they have developed an online mapping tool that allows users to determine exactly how risky their behavior is, pretty much anywhere in the country.

You can find the tool here: https://tinyurl.com/y22a4olp, and it answers some of those questions I posed above.

For example, if you stop at a neighborhood bar in Bayfield or Ashland county and 10 people are hanging out, you stand about a 1 in 3 chance of coming into contact with someone who has the coronavirus.

How about a birthday party or retirement celebration with 15 other people? In Bayfield County, you’ve upped your odds to roughly 50-50, and in Ashland County you have a 40% chance of brushing up against the virus.

At a small wedding with 25 other people, things get really troublesome. About 2/3 of those gatherings will include someone with COVID.

And a big wedding or church service or other gathering of 100 people? Forget it. In Bayfield County, 99% of such groups will include someone who has the virus — with Ashland County slightly better at 97%.

The situation in our neighbor to the east is even worse. In Iron County, a gathering of just 10 people has a 51% chance of including someone who is sick, and bump that up to a restaurant-size crowd of 25 and you stand an 83% chance.

Why are those numbers so important?

The journal “Nature” published a study this week in which researchers used cellphone mobility data — 98 million people across 57,000 American neighborhoods.

Their findings were eye-popping: 80% of all infections are linked to just a handful of places:

  • Full-service restaurants
  • Gyms
  • Hotels
  • Cafés
  • Religious organizations
  • Limited-service restaurants

Places that have opened those sites are most likely to see large outbreaks of infections.

Gov. Tony Evers no doubt was looking at similar statistics this week before he held a state address and again implored people to stay home — and to wear masks and keep distance from others if you must leave home.

I would encourage businesses to look at the numbers, too, before making decisions about calling employees back into offices or limiting customers in stores.

If you have 10 people in your business, you have a 1 in 3 chance of exposing all of them to the virus.

Those are bad odds. And for everyone who thinks business is bad now, consider how much worse it will be with all your employees and customers quarantined.

It’s also worth remembering that none of the researchers involved with this project — or Evers, for that matter — stands to gain in any way at all from keeping people at home.

They simply want to provide information in a way that people can understand and use to make good, data-driven decisions.

Peter J. Wasson is managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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