Online COVID-19 risk assessment gets an upgrade to reflect larger gatherings

TORONTO — As the COVID-19 situation changes across the country, tools to help Canadians assess their risk level are getting an upgrade as well: this fall, a website that gives Canadians an idea of the virus risk in any given situation has updated to be more relevant for back-to-school.

The COVID-19 Visit Risk Calculator is an online tool that helps you answer the important question: Is this gathering I have planned to attend actually safe?

Although the tool, created by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and funded in part by the federal government, has existed in some form since last year, it launched a more detailed version earlier this summer — and now the feedback they’ve received since then has caused them to add even more options.

“We literally just went live at this morning at 10 with the brand new kind of calculators in English and French, and the longer what we call ‘decision aids,’ both in English and French,” Dr. Samir Sinha said.

Sinha, an expert in geriatrics and one of the developers of the COVID-19 Visit Risk Calculator, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that one of the big updates this fall was allowing respondents to model situations involving kids under 12 — a growing concern with students returning to school.

“A lot of people are particularly worried because children under 12 right now can’t be vaccinated,” he said. “We used to just have an age cutoff of under 18, but to really be more inclusive now, we’re really also giving people the opportunity to look at groups of people greater than 12 to 18, but then also people under 12.”

Since children under 12 can’t get vaccinated right now, being able to look at only that population with the tool as opposed to looking at a cohort of under 18, which would include some vaccinated people, allows parents and kids to get a better picture of the specific risk that younger kids are facing.

How the tool works is that when people visit the website, they can take either the three minute “My COVID-19 Visit Risk Calculator” or the “My COVID-19 Visit Risk Decision Aid,” which is a more in-depth, 10-minute questionnaire.

In both, respondents can input information about themselves, such as the province they live in, their vaccination level, age and risk factors, and then information about the gathering that they are hoping to attend.

This can include the amount of people expected to be there, whether it is indoor or outdoors, the expected vaccination level of others at the gathering and what public health measures will be impossible to follow during the gathering, among other things.

At the end, the tool tells you whether the gathering is likely to be low, moderate, high, or very high risk.

According to a recent press release, more than 120,000 Canadians have used the three-minute risk calculator to assess their gatherings so far.

Sinha said they listen to the feedback they receive, and wanted to tailor this fall update to the concerns that people have currently, regarding back to school, larger gatherings and the rise of the Delta variant.

“One of our promises from the work that we’re doing is that we’re going to continue to review the science,” Sinha said.

“Public health guidance is changing, for example, allowing people to do things with bigger groups of people. We wanted to start reflecting that in our tool. So we want to give people options.”

He said that the tool used to only give the option to select gatherings with up to 10 people, because gatherings were so much smaller earlier in the pandemic.

“Now we want to give people the opportunity for saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to a concert, there could be over a hundred people here in this gathering’,” he said.

Another change is being able to say you’re unsure about the vaccination level of others around you.

“A lot of people were saying, you know, when you’re gathering with a small group of people, say you’re gathering with another family, you generally know what their vaccination status is, but when you’re increasingly gathering with larger groups where you’re really not sure about the vaccination status of everybody, people wanted to have more opportunities to say ‘unsure’ [when filling out the online tool],” Sinha explained.

The feedback hasn’t just pointed out what they could do better. They’ve received a lot of illuminating responses from people who thanked them for helping them understand that certain situations were more risky than they thought — or safer than they thought.

“The feedback overall has been overwhelmingly positive where people have really just said it’s really helped solidify their understanding of the risks associated,” Sinha said. “It’s given them confidence to be able to go back and meet with their loved ones, their families, or friends, but doing it safely.”

The risk calculators get you to assess how low or high you think the risk is before the calculator reveals what it believes your risk to be. This helps people see if they’re perceiving things as a lot safer than maybe they actually are, or vice versa.

“It’s almost an opportunity where people say, ‘oh, goodness, I actually thought this is low, but you told me it was moderate [risk].’ And then it’s a prompt for them to read the education,” he said.

The page where the tool tells you your risk level includes a detailed breakdown of the questions you were asked, and how they can contribute to your risk or not.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) came onboard last year after NIA had launched their original online tool, which only included the 10-minute long decision aid. Sinha said PHAC had looked at the design of other similar tools across the world, and found theirs to be the most comprehensive, asking them to make a shorter version to pull more people in. It was that version, with both calculators, that launched last June.

He added that 12 per cent of those who use the tool are multiple users, coming back to use it again for other situations.

“We’re hoping that many of those folks who’ve used in the past will come back, check out the new version and see if it meets up to their needs,” he said.

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