Risk of dying from COVID-19 is real but lower than you might think, says UC Davis doctor

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The risk of dying from COVID-19 in Los Angeles is about nine in 1 million, according to Dr. Michael Wilkes. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (CC BY 2.0).

More than 100,000 people nationwide have died from COVID-19 so far. But how much of a threat does it pose to the general public compared to other experiences such as flying in a plane or skydiving? 

Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, says people engage in varying levels of risk each day. That can include driving on a busy highway or eating food without knowing its exact source. Those behaviors add up to “dose effect,” meaning that the more you do a certain activity, the higher the overall risk becomes. 

Wilkes says physicians use micromorts to measure the likelihood of death from an activity. A micromort equates to a one in 1 million chance of dying. 

He gives examples. Skydiving: seven micromorts. Traditional childbirth: 120 micromorts. Cesarean childbirth: 170 micromorts.  

“Unconsciously, each of us decides how much risk, or how many micromorts, we're willing to accept by engaging in all sorts of activities of life,” Wilkes says.

During COVID-19, Wilkes notes that the number of micromorts people face have gone up.

Depending on where you live, the likelihood of dying — and the number of micromorts assigned to daily behaviors — fluctuates. Living in New York City during the pandemic equates to adding 50 micromorts to daily behaviors. Wilkes says that’s double the micromorts compared to living on a military station in Afghanistan in 2010, or riding 44 miles a day on a motorcycle in California. 

Living in Los Angeles during the pandemic is equal to nine micromorts per day, or a nine in 1 million chance of dying from COVID-19, according to Wilkes.

However, he says if someone becomes infected with the coronavirus, the risk of dying jumps by 10,000 micomorts, which is the same risk as climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. 

A lot of the risk calculation comes down to age, overall health, culture, and other sociocultural influences, Wilkes notes.




Chery Glaser