Calculating Your Risk Budget

If you’re like me, you’re feeling exhausted by the constant risk calculation and decision-making surrounding COVID.


What should you do for Thanksgiving? Should you RSVP “yes” to that wedding this spring? Is it safe to fly? Do you really need a booster yet? Is it safe to take off your mask when you get to the office? Can you go back to commuting on the train instead of driving


It’s hard to know how to make these decisions.

Closeup of a pile of unused, light blue surgical masks
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Enter: the risk budget.


A risk budget says we should imagine that each of us has a certain amount of risk we’re willing to take on. Each activity “spends” a little bit of that risk. If you use up enough of your risk budget within a certain time period, then you stop doing anything until your budget gets refilled.


How much can you “spend?”


The total risk you’re willing to “spend” comes from a few factors.

  • Do you live alone? With several people? With how many people does your collective household spend time indoors and unmasked?

  • What is your risk of a bad outcome from COVID-19? What about that risk for everyone in your household and pod? Do you regularly come into contact with any vulnerable people?

  • How much risk are you willing to take on?


Where will you “spend” it?

The way you choose to spend your risk will depend on how risky each of your required and desired activities are.

  • How much of your risk gets spent at work and/or school?

  • How much is left for leisure, self-care, and other activities?

  • Can you mitigate the risk of any of your activities with a better mask, distancing, open windows, going outside, or limiting your time around others?

  • If you choose to do a particularly risky activity, what other activities will you forego so you don’t exceed your budget?


A Calculator

The above are just guidelines, but if you want some actual numbers and calculations, the folks at The microCOVID Project have your back. You can use their online risk calculator to estimate the COVID risk of your activities and compare it with your risk budget.


For example: attending worship at St. Paul’s for one hour on Sunday mornings, unvaccinated but wearing a KN95 mask, currently adds up to around 94 microCOVIDs. (This is also based on the overall risk in Hartford County right now.) If you’re using their Standard Caution Budget, that makes it a Moderate Risk activity.


But! If you’re double vaccinated with Pfizer in the above scenario, it brings your microCOVIDs for this activity down to 16, which is Low Risk for their standard budget.


The Best Part

This is the best part. These calculations remove the moralizing around our decisions.


If you choose not to get vaccinated (or your body can’t produce immunity from the vaccination), this calculator doesn’t yell at you. It just tells you that your risk for worshiping at St. Paul’s is nearly 6 times higher than it would be with a vaccination. Maybe, if you don’t leave your house except to grocery shop, that’s a risk you’re willing to take.


Each decision we make affects our options and one another. It’s our responsibility to continue to be diligent—exhausted by this as we may be—and keep everyone in our community safe, healthy, and whole.