Houston epidemiologists analyze COVID-19 risks as mask mandates are lifted

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Texas Department of State Health Services reports COVID-19 cases across the state are at one of their lowest points during the entire pandemic.

While Texas is not seeing an increase in cases or deaths there is an uptick in the percentage of tests coming back positive.

Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist with the UT Health School of Public Health, authored an article in the New York Times asking if COVID is more dangerous than driving.

Jetelina says the coronavirus remains new enough and its long-term effects are unpredictable to where measuring the threat posed by an infection is major problem.

"We're doing a really terrible job of communicating risk. I think that's also why people are throwing their hands up in the air and saying, 'Screw it.' They're desperate for some sort of guidance," Jetelina said in the article.

She says mask mandates are being lifted and some free testing sites have closed.

According to Jetelina, parts of the United States still trying to quell the pandemic have largely turned their focus from community-wide advice. She adds that even as the case numbers begin to increase again and more infections go unreported, due to home testing, she says the responsibility has fallen on Americans to decide how much risk they and their neighbors face.

"Part of our human psychology is that we are very, very poor at calculating risks," says Dr. Catherine Troisi, Jetelina's colleague at UT Health.
"It doesn't tell with a situation like COVID where there's some things we don't know where it varies so much between person to person depending on their age, their immune status, and where they live."

Troisi says it's hard for us to calculate the risk for ourselves even if we know the risks and the benefits.

"We know that driving is a dangerous activity, particularly here in Houston. But it's worth it because we don't want to walk every place and walking has its own risks," says Troisi. "Flying has its own set of risks, both with COVID and otherwise, and but you decide it's worth it because you want to see family or you want to go on vacation. I think we have to constantly weigh whether we're willing to take a particular risk."

Jetelina says the threats of COVID for many have eased dramatically over the two years of the pandemic, and vaccines have helped slash the risk of being hospitalized or dying.

Triosi agrees with Jetelina's article that the risks of COVID are not just about the numbers.

"We don't really know what the case count is because many people are testing at home," says Triosi. "And testing sites are closing because COVID funding has not been reauthorized by Congress, people who don't have insurance would have to pay for their own PCR test. So, just looking at case counts is not giving us a good idea of what's happening in the community anymore."

According to the CDC, COVID remains a significant health threat, " Because it's replicating in your body making more of itself every time it makes another little baby omicron virus. There's a chance of a new variant arising. There's no guarantee that in the future, some more severe disease and then and we're in big trouble."
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