How I Evaluated Risk During Covid

I like to talk about EV and risk management a lot, but most of my examples are finance based, as the math is the clearest in those cases. Covid, however, presented a unique situation for risk management. Because the way I manage risk is unique to my own situation and I don’t want to offer blanket suggestions, I’ve waited to write about this until after covid is mostly over.

This post will probably be controversial and annoy people because most people will have taken different paths than I did, but I hope the main takeaway will be some version of “think about your own situation and make the best logical decision you can”.

To start, I never really cared whether I got covid or not. I have an excellent immune system, almost never get sick, and recover very quickly when I do. I haven’t needed or taken medicine, including aspirin, in over 20 years. My main concern was avoiding spreading covid to family members or my wife (who has a bad immune system), and doing my civic duty to not spread the virus accidentally to strangers.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the goal is never to take zero risk. We take risks daily by walking, driving, eating, breathing, climbing stairs, etc. So our primary goal should be to minimize risk relative to other risks and benefits. For example, if you told me that I could have a free yacht if I got covid, I would gladly take the trade because the benefit is so great compared to the risk.

One of the ways I arrived at the conclusion that I didn’t care whether or not I got covid was to do the math and determine how bad it was compared to other threats. I estimated that it was about 10x worse than getting the flu, so I asked myself what I would do to avoid getting the flu for 10 years. The answer was that I would make zero lifestyle changes for that benefit. This isn’t quite an apples to apples comparison, but it does put it in perspective.

In mid-March, when people began to worry about covid, I was traveling in Japan. I assumed that Japan would handle covid better than most countries, so this was probably decreasing my personal risk. Tokyo is a huge city full of people who were living life as usual, so I didn’t feel like me as one additional person would have any real effect on community spread.

I planned to go to Europe afterwards, but around that time borders were starting to close and flight schedules were being altered. I became worried that if I went to Europe I might get stuck there. It turns out I could have easily got home at any point, but that wasn’t totally clear to me at the time.

I had done the math of reported cases and likely actual cases and decided that although it was very unlikely I would contact someone with covid, the chances were also going up quickly, so going back home seemed like a reasonable idea anyway.

When I got back, people in the US were going pretty crazy hoarding toilet paper and food. I bought a few bags of oatmeal and dried beans just in case there was any temporary issue in adjusting our food infrastructure, but I never had to eat any of it. At this point I went into full-on lockdown mode because it seemed like if we all did that we could get ahead of covid and knock it out. Being around my wife also made me want to be much more careful as hospitals were becoming overloaded and I suspected she might need one if she got covid.

We took a few trips during the peak of Covid. My mom was moving from California to Texas, so I flew in to help her drive her car over. I quarantined strictly for over two weeks in Vegas and then did the drive with her. My wife and I visited a few other fairly-strict friends for multi-day trips. At that point covid had been dragging on for months and we felt like the benefits outweighed the risks.

Compliance decreasing over time makes a lot of sense when you think about it logically. What lifestyle alterations would you be willing to accept to destroy covid in one day? You’d probably do just about anything, including sitting in solitary confinement. What would you accept over a year or more? Probably a lot less. By the point that hospitals were no longer overloaded, we knew more about the virus, and the fatality rate had gone way down, we switched to taking few precautions other than wearing masks, keeping some distance, and avoiding large groups.

When the vaccine came it was an absolute no-brainer to me. I am against taking most non-essential medicine, but I studied the mRNA vaccines and they seemed like the absolute best version of medicine possible. Their function was really clear and it seemed like chances of any side effects were next to nothing. Even if there was no medical benefit, I would have been happy to take the vaccine just to be able to travel again. It’s very strange to me that anyone who takes normal medicine and/or drugs would avoid the vaccine.

Once we got vaccinated and completed the waiting period after the second shot, we immediately stopped all non mandated precautions. I got the most useless but comfortable mask possible, wore it only when legally required, and began to spend as much time as possible with anyone with a similar attitude. The chance of a serious bad outcome for a vaccinated person is nearly zero, and the chance of spreading it as a vaccinated person is very low.

Ironically, my wife got covid a few months after being vaccinated! My best guess is that she got it at a hockey game full 20,000 screaming fans, but we’ll never know for sure. You may see this as a failure to our strategy, but I don’t see it that way. We knew that the vaccine isn’t completely perfect, but that it seriously decreases the risk profile, and the benefits of living normal life greatly outweigh the risk.

Her symptoms were mostly like a normal cold, except one day she had some serious coughing fits. We got a pulse oximeter but everything was fine.

I didn’t avoid my wife at all while she had covid. I figured that I was most likely exposed to whatever infected her, had already been around her before she was symptomatic, and still had the vaccine and my immune system to rely on. For the comfort of visiting friends I got tested every day and never got covid.

Observing others during covid was very interesting. While we’re all individuals and there may be factors I’m not aware of, it seemed like most people were way too cautious, treating covid like it was an order of magnitude worse than it actually was. I was also stunned at how many people, including very smart people, didn’t get the vaccine. It’s sad to me that both being overly cautious and under cautious became political issues rather than matters of statistical analysis and logic.

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Photo is one of the main train stations in Budapest. I’m here now and it feels amazing! Budapest was the number one place I missed during covid, so now Japan is number one on my list.

There is one spot left for Superhuman 4.5! We have a great group so far and it’s going to be a great event. Let me know if you want to come.

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3 comments

  1. I think your initial risk calculation was off. The comparison should not have been, “what would I do to avoid getting the flu for 10 years”, it’s “what would I do to avoid a guarantee of getting the flu every year for 10 years straight.” In the first case you’re reducing your flu risk per year from ~10% to 0%, and in the second one you’re reducing it from 100% to 0%.

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