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Why It’s So Difficult to Assess Pandemic Risks Right Now – The New York Times

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California in recent weeks has inched away from its strictest pandemic policies, lifting its indoor mask mandates and some vaccination requirements. The state last month released a long-term plan for living with the coronavirus, instead of treating it as an emergency.
But at the same time, thousands of Californians continue to contract Covid-19 daily, while concerns grow that a new wave could be coming to the United States.
If it seems particularly difficult to assess Covid dangers right now, that’s because it is.
California has entered a new phase of the pandemic, in which its residents have more responsibility for deciding on safety precautions than ever before. And unfortunately, humans are not very good at understanding risk.
Our perceptions are influenced by news coverage, policies, our personal experiences, the behaviors of people around us and so much more. Sometimes, or perhaps even often, our judgment is wildly off.
Take this Stanford study. In May 2020, the average American believed the risk of catching the coronavirus while grocery shopping was 40 percent, and 62 percent when on public transportation, the researchers found.
At that time, the fraction of Americans who had ever tested positive for the coronavirus was less than 1 percent.
“We found that people drastically overestimated the risk,” said Maria Polyakova, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of health policy at Stanford. “People are really not good at understanding small risks.”
Add to that the fact that the risk of severe Covid varies from person to person, and that the prevalence of the virus differs across communities and changes constantly, and the calculation becomes extremely complicated. There’s no universal answer.
Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at U.C.L.A., said she worried that there was another, new factor at play too: pandemic fatigue. She has been tracking a highly transmissible coronavirus subvariant that’s fueling a surge in Europe and becoming increasingly common here.
“Everybody is ready for Covid to be over,” Rimoin told me. “It’s like a kid in the back seat of a car saying, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ We’re not there yet.”
But it can be difficult to translate those small risks into behavioral changes, experts say.
The decisions we make — Will I fly to that wedding? Should I eat at an indoor restaurant? — tend to be yes-or-no choices, not behaviors we can modify by, say, 10 percent, said Craig McKenzie, a psychology professor at U.C. San Diego.
So we’re all searching for a threshold at which we can stop adjusting our behaviors to avoid Covid, he said. And some people may already feel they have reached that place.
“Flu is a risk, flying is a risk, driving is a risk — we can’t attend to all of them,” he told me. “At some point I have to act as if this doesn’t matter because, if the risk is one in a million, should I change my behavior?”
For more:
A C.D.C. map shows Covid risk levels in each county in California. According to the agency’s guidance, masks are not currently recommended anywhere in the state.
Covid hospitalizations are rising in Los Angeles County, City News Service reports.
The Biden administration plans to offer second booster shots to those 50 and up.
With eyes on Russia, the U.S. military prepares for an Arctic future.
Free Covid tests: California is giving more than 14.3 million at-home Covid-19 tests to students and school employees to prevent outbreaks as they return to class from spring break, The Associated Press reports.
Unemployment rate falls: California added a “staggering” 138,100 new jobs in February, The Associated Press reports.
Transgender judge: The second openly transgender person to serve as a California judge was appointed on Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, The Associated Press reports.
Grocery strike: About 47,000 central and southern California grocery workers seeking higher wages voted to strike against several major supermarket chains, The Associated Press reports.
Education reformer dies: Marion Joseph, an advocate for phonics-based reading in California, died on Thursday, The Associated Press reports.
Retail thefts: Nine members of a statewide organized retail theft group have been charged with conspiracy, felony grand theft and receiving stolen property, The Associated Press reports.
Oscars: See the complete list of winners.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Cheap gas prices: Some Californians are crossing the border into Tijuana for cheaper gas, The Los Angeles Times reports.
School misconduct: Two former Mission Viejo High School students are suing the school for failing to act on their reports of abuse decades ago, The Los Angeles Times reports.
CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
New ward boundaries: Bakersfield’s Punjabi residents are celebrating a City Council vote to rectify a political map that has long divided the community, The Bakersfield Californian reports.
Drought: National Geographic reports on the deceptively simple plan to replenish California’s groundwater.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Prison death: An inmate at California State Prison in Sacramento died in an attack on Saturday. The incident is being investigated as a homicide, The Associated Press reports.

Ritzy Cheddar chicken breasts.
Today’s tip comes from Richard Forster, who recommends San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park:
“The Queen Wilhelmina Garden and restored 1902 windmill, gift to the city from the Netherlands, at the western end of the park by the Pacific provides a stunning quilt of color during spring tulip season. Nearby the Beach and Park Chalet restaurants and brewpub offer a respite to enjoy the sun slipping into the ocean horizon. Bonus: the lower level is a mini-museum surrounded by WPA-era murals and a three-dimensional Golden Gate Park model located on the first floor of the building.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
“CODA,” which won Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars, is being developed into a stage musical in Los Angeles.
We’ve recently been publishing your notes about why you love your corner of California.
If you’d like to submit a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — please email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll keep sharing your missives in the newsletter.
You know about state parks, national parks and probably national forest lands. But have you visited the parts of California overseen by the Bureau of Land Management?
Fifteen percent of California is managed by the agency, which is within the United States Department of the Interior. This includes some of the most beautiful landscapes in the state, SFGate reports.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Tube-shaped pasta (5 letters).
Mariel Wamsley and Jonah Candelario contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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