Holiday plans? Map shows real-time COVID-19 risk for gatherings, by county

As the holidays approach amid a concerning resurgence of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the United States, an interactive online map enables people to assess their risk of encountering someone infected with COVID-19 at an event, based on the size of the gathering and the county in which the event is being held.

The dashboard allows users to zoom in on a county anywhere in the U.S. and choose an event size ranging between 10 people, such as a holiday dinner party, to a sports event with 10,000 people. The tool then calculates the risk level of attending that event with at least one infected individual.

The resurgence of the virus has sent death, hospitalization and new infection figures soaring. COVID-19 is blamed for more than 240,000 deaths and over 10.4 million confirmed cases in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. 

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Health experts have warned of a dark winter due to a disregard for mask-wearing and other precautions, the onset of cold weather and crowded holiday gatherings. The crisis has deepened at hospitals, with the situation so bad in North Dakota that the governor this week said nurses who test positive but have no symptoms can still work.

In Buleigh County, which contains North Dakota’s capital of Bismark, the interactive map shows attending an event on Nov. 12 with just 10 people would lead to a 72% chance of becoming infected with the virus. For an event in the same county but with 15 people in attendance, such as a dinner party with friends, the risk jumps to 85%.

At 50 people, the risk of becoming infected exceeds 99%.

Some 600 miles south in Kansas, another state that has reported a record average of new daily cases and overwhelmed hospitals, the risk is even higher for a small gathering. For a Nov. 12 event with just 10 people in the small Norton County, located in the northwest part of the state, the estimated risk of being exposed to the coronavirus was 99%. 

Doctors at a hospital in Kansas City this week started postponing a small number of elective surgeries to free up bed space. Officials with the University of Kansas Health System said it is having to turn away patients from out of state because of a lack of space.

The COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool was developed by researchers at Georgia Tech. (Photo credit: Georgia Tech)

The real-time map, called the COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool, was developed by researchers at Georgia Tech. It pulls data from The New York Times case count and The COVID Tracking Project by The Atlantic, both of which base their number of confirmed cases on reports from state-level public health departments. It has also estimates the risk in a handful of European countries, including the U.K., France and Italy.

As the holiday season quickly approaches, health officials say that small household gatherings have become an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases. The spike prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release updated guidelines for Thanksgiving celebrations.

Chicago’s mayor issued a stay-at-home advisory this week in response to the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Illinois’ most populous city. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also strongly urged Chicago residents to cancel their Thanksgiving celebrations and avoid any non-essential, out-of-state travel if possible.

“The gains we have made this past year have been the result of our willingness to work together,” Lightfoot said. “Even in this difficult moment, we will continue to unite as we always have for our city in order to halt the rise we’re seeing, shake out of the fatigue we’ve been experiencing, and make the crucial difference in what our future is going to look like.”

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.