COVID-19 Risk and Incidence

Recent case incidence is useful for estimating risk.

In these days and months of COVID-19, we wonder about risk. When I go out in public, what is my risk? The answer in part depends on prevalence: How many people in my area are infectious?

In the United States, we don’t have an adequate testing program, and we don’t know how high the prevalence is. What we do know is case incidence–the number of cases found today and in recent days. These counts are often listed in news sources or displayed like this:


The graph is a bit cluttered, and it’s not obvious what to do with the information. The daily counts fluctuate with day of the week reporting and other factors that carry little information. Most of these graphs include a curve that is a moving average of the daily counts to smooth out these fluctuations.

The case counts go up and down, but what does that tell us about current risk? The experts at Harvard Global Health Institute have developed a framework that adds context. It categorizes COVID-19 risk level as Green, Yellow, Orange, or Red based on daily case count per 100, 000 people.

For our use, it is valuable to combine the smoothed daily case count with this risk scale. COVID Action Network provides graphs that look like this:

CAN exampleThe stylish color change in the curve would delight data visualizers. Unfortunately it is likely to take too much cognitive effort for other viewers. Something simple and bold is probably better.


Stacked bar chart

The Economist recently reported that the decline of infectious diseases in developing countries will mean that care for chronic conditions will be more important.

The trend for these two cases is shown in a stacked bar chart.

The argument would be a bit more compelling if data for 2010 were included.

The stacked bar presentation works well because the values sum to 100%, there are only two values per stacked bar, and The Economist does not like to use tables in articles. The bars are somewhat redundant, but they display the relative values at a glance. It is appropriate that only the chronic case is labelled since it is the focus of the article.