Conversations on COVID: How science, data can inform personal choices during the pandemic

Emily Oster, an economist and public policy expert at Brown, has partnered with medical experts, data scientists and Brown students to create a hub of helpful information about COVID-19.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Lately, Emily Oster’s inbox has been flooded with questions from parents who are worried about the risk of COVID-19 sickening themselves and their children.

Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, has earned a national reputation for the data-driven pregnancy and parenting advice she shared in the bestselling books “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet.” Thousands of parents also subscribe to her e-newsletter ParentData, where she has lately drawn from scientific studies and datasets to weigh in on whether it’s safe for children and grandparents to interact, whether pregnancy exacerbates a woman’s chances of contracting COVID-19, and how daycare services can resume.

But Oster — driven to make a positive impact through her research, like so many scholars in the Brown community — wanted to do more to help members of the public, whether parents or not, understand the basic principles of the virus, including how it spreads and what people can do to protect themselves and their loved ones. So she partnered with Galit Alter, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, to create the website COVID Explained, a no-nonsense guide to understanding, navigating and protecting oneself from COVID-19.

Together with students, faculty and staff at Brown, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities, Oster and Alter have built a practical resource aimed at anyone and everyone, in the U.S. and beyond.

Following the website’s launch, Oster — who is also deep in scenario-planning for Brown’s next academic year, as co-chair of the University’s Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force — answered questions about COVID Explained.

Q: How did you get the idea to create COVID Explained?

I’ve been writing a bunch about COVID-19 in my newsletter from the perspective of parenting and the Brown community. A friend of mine who reads the newsletter called and said, “I feel like there are some things missing from the broader conversation about COVID.” In particular, she said, there are a lot of scientists who are making notable progress on treatment and testing, but their voices are not being amplified in policy discussions.

That could be because people are having a hard time understanding some basic facts about the virus. I think earlier this spring, there were lots of good public resources — graphs that demonstrated the trajectory of the virus and explained the concept of “flattening the curve.” But we didn’t follow up with helpful graphics and information that addressed common questions like: How does the virus spread? What can you do to prevent getting sick?

As a result, I think a lot of people came away thinking, if someone who is sick with COVID touches a salad box at Whole Foods, and then I touch it 3 hours later, I’m going to get sick. And if you’re coming in with that understanding, you don’t know that the virus can’t “seep in” to your skin, and then you maybe don’t understand the point of washing your hands after you get home from Whole Foods. I wanted people to know the basic facts: The virus cannot live that long on a salad box, and even if it could, you can still prevent yourself from getting sick by washing your hands, because that prevents the virus from spreading to your nose and mouth.

Q: What does the content creation process for COVID Explained look like? Who else is involved?

Right now, there’s a large interdisciplinary team working to put all this together. Often, I will say, okay, we need to put together a piece explaining herd immunity. What percentage of the population needs to be immune before we achieve herd immunity? How do we get there?

We start by digging into the science. I ask someone with expertise in this field, often a Ph.D. student or a postdoctoral researcher, to draft a piece drawing on several studies. Then I will take a pass at the piece and frame it to be more understandable to a lay audience, while keeping it grounded in hard science. We also have several extraordinary Brown undergraduate students who are reading, editing and fact-checking. Some of them are using these long-form explainer pieces to generate more questions that we can answer.

A lot of people are struggling with how or whether to get haircuts, eat at restaurants or go to the beach. Understanding how the virus spreads is the key to making the best choices about all of these specific things.

Emily Oster Professor of Economics

Q: What can people learn from the website that they wouldn’t necessarily get from news coverage?

I think we can help give people context. When you read or see coverage on, say, new facts about the virus, new statistics or a new study related to the virus, those new developments tend to be covered largely in isolation. If you don’t have the background knowledge to put this latest development in context, it’s difficult to process the information in a way that is helpful. We are aiming to fill in the gaps.

I think a lot of people also feel confused when they hear reports that conflict with one another. One day they hear a vaccine is in development and the trials are looking promising, and the next day they hear we might not have a vaccine until 2027. We’re stepping back and saying: Here’s how vaccine development works, and here’s what experiments are taking place right now. Having that knowledge helps people process and consider new pieces of news without wildly overreacting one way or the other.

Q: COVID Explained gives an overview of the risk associated with certain activities, such as visiting grandparents and putting kids in daycare, without always providing explicit advice. How can people evaluate which risks are worth taking right now?

I think earlier on in the pandemic, there was a general feeling of, “Don’t you want to do the safest possible thing?” And the safest thing, as most people understood it, was to never leave home. But I think people have realized over time that, even if only for mental health reasons, that may not be the safest thing.

Society has adapted to take certain risks. Every time you drive your car, for example, you’re taking a risk — you could injure yourself or even die, or you could injure someone else. But we calculate that driving is a risk worth taking. We may need to do the same thing with COVID-19. We may need to switch our thinking a little bit to, “What is the safest way to do this activity or that activity?” People may disagree about whether it’s right to have a barbecue with family members, for example. But we all agree that, were someone to have a family barbecue, we would want to make sure they were doing it in the safest way possible.

Q: What is the most important thing you want readers to understand about the virus?

I think the big, overarching takeaway is that if you understand how the virus spreads, you can make better choices. We launched this website when everything was closed, but now that Rhode Island and other states are beginning to open back up, I think understanding the basic information is even more important. A lot of people are struggling with how or whether to get haircuts, eat at restaurants or go to the beach. Understanding how the virus spreads is the key to making the best choices about all of these specific things.