CDC's Stat on Outdoor COVID Is Way Off

David Leonhardt of the New York Times digs in, finds estimate of 10% transmission way too high
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 11, 2021 1:22 PM CDT
CDC's Stat on Outdoor COVID Is 'Misleading'
The risk of casual outdoor transmission of COVID appears to be extremely low.   (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The CDC last month announced that "less than 10%" of COVID transmission was occurring outdoors. At the New York Times, David Leonhardt digs into the research and concludes that the agency is pushing a "misleading" stat. Based on the epidemiologists he's interviewed and the studies he's examined, the true estimate of outdoor transmission is below 1%, and possibly below 0.1%. "Saying that less than 10% of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year," he writes, noting the actual worldwide number is about 150 swimmers. "It’s both true and deceiving." Well, you might say, what's wrong with the CDC erring on the side of the caution? The problem is that this type of misinformation is "leaving many people confused about what’s truly risky," writes Leonhardt.

Nowhere in the world is there a single documented infection from "casual" outdoor interaction, "such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table," Leonhardt adds. Part of the problem appears to stem from studies with imprecise definitions of what constitutes "outdoors." For example, instances from Singapore construction sites are weirdly over-represented in early research on outdoor transmissions, even though these sites appear more likely to be indoor locales. It's all needlessly muddling what should be a clear message, writes Leonhardt: "Masks make a huge difference indoors and rarely matter outdoors." At the National Review, Veronique de Rugy praises Leonhardt as a voice of reason, "playing an important role in calming those Americans panicking over this virus, or at least helping them to assess the risk better." (Read more COVID-19 stories.)

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