Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Click Here to Support KAZU's Fall Membership Drive!

The importance of fixing bad COVID math

Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with data. Infection rates. Hospitalization rates. 14 day moving averages. Data about masks. About vaccines.

So much data. And yet:

“The public has a very weak understanding of the factual basis of the risks,” Jonathan Rothwell says.

A misunderstanding that can then misshape policies.

“We’re still trying to deduce from these groups that are really non-comparable. That is absolutely bananas,” Leslie Bienen, faculty at Portland State University, says.

Today, On Point: The importance of fixing COVID math.


Nick Melvoin, vice president at the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. (@nickmelvoin)

Tracy Høeg, physician. Author of the article “How to Fix Our Broken Relationship with COVID Math.” (@TracyBethHoeg)

Jonathan Rothwell, principal economist at Gallup. (@jtrothwell)

Also Featured

Jenny Hontz, parent of a LAUSD student.

Allison Schrager, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. (@AllisonSchrager)

Eric Happel, parent and member of ED300, a network of 30,000 Oregon families devoted to reopening Oregon schools and sports.

Interview Highlights

What is the thesis about the importance of fixing our broken relationship with COVID math? 

Tracy Høeg: “Basically, our impression — and my co-author is Leslie Bienin and Eric Happel — is that we in the United States, the public has a warped sense of risk … in terms of the risks that COVID posed to people of different ages. So there is a very steep age gradient for COVID and risk. So per infection, if you look at it, children have a one in 500 to one in 1,000 risk of hospitalization. Where someone over 80 has a 29% risk of hospitalization, if infected. So it’s a multi-thousand fold risk of difference in terms of mortality. And this has not been really expressed to the public. And same with the incredible effectiveness of vaccines in terms of preventing severe disease.

“So we were concerned that the American people, the public were not getting accurate information in terms of how to assess risk. And we’re rather basing risk on anecdotes and stories that tried to create fear rather than actual data. So we wanted to create some rules for both public health agencies and for media outlets, in terms of reporting the data more accurately. And sort of conveying when there is a higher amount of risk, and when there’s a lower amount of risk.”

On how the L.A. country school board calculates risk during COVID

Nick Melvoin: “It was rather challenging. And that goes back to my earlier point about the district not being a public health agency. And so we were looking at the county numbers, the city numbers, the state numbers. And I will say those weren’t always the same numbers. And when you looked at positive cases out of 100,000, or the rolling 14-day average, they didn’t exactly match, and that it was at its most inane, I think, when we had a series of overlapping color-coded systems from the state and the county when we could open. So we were in the red tier, the purple tier and in California, the purple tier was even worse than the red tier and people were confused about that.

“And it didn’t — to your guests earlier point — necessarily differentiate between children’s data, and adult data and what we were seeing in schools versus in the community. Also, COVID rates were one data point, and there were others that I was advocating we looked at. What is the data of academic loss? What is the data of acute kind of mental health challenges we’re seeing in students? And how do we put this in context? Because we talked a lot in the spring of 2021 about the risk of reopening schools. We did not talk enough about the risk of keeping schools closed.

“And what were those data points? And that’s what we’re starting to see now. … Just to plug the L.A. Times again, there was another article last week about the huge achievement gaps that we’re seeing in L.A. schools. Well, these are things that I flagged last year, but the data around academics took a backseat to the data around COVID rates, not inappropriately so. But that was another data point that was muted. And now we’re seeing a lot about the data about women in the workforce, about parents who couldn’t go back to work until schools were open. So the frustration for me wasn’t that the data was conflicting or hard to follow. It was that we were only looking at COVID data. We weren’t looking at the other things that are important to families.”

From The Reading List

Persuasion: “How to Fix Our Broken Relationship With COVID Math” — “Throughout the pandemic, Americans have grappled with, and largely failed to make sense of, COVID-19 statistics.”

Brookings: “How misinformation is distorting COVID policies and behaviors” — “The COVID-19 pandemic has been far reaching in its effects, but knowledge of key facts about the virus and related perceptions of risk associated with it are far from uniform.”

KTLA: “L.A. County announces modified quarantine option for unvaccinated students” — “Los Angeles County public health officials announced Thursday that they’re offering school districts the option to allow unvaccinated students who have come into contact with a positive COVID-19 case to continue attending in-person classes under strict guidelines.”

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit