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Wearing a mask may be key to avoiding a second wave of COVID-19. Getty Images
  • Masks may be the key to keeping COVID-19 at bay and avoiding lockdowns in the future, new research suggests.
  • As San Francisco is reopening, people are required to wear face coverings when they see someone as far as 30 feet away.
  • A study’s models looked at countries with a culture of mass face mask wearing, most of which also made wearing masks in public mandatory during the epidemic.

At this point, wearing a mask is part of our daily wardrobe.

Keys, wallet, phone… mask. You may even be toting around a sizable collection of them.

But even as states are beginning their reopening phases preparing for post-COVID recovery, you may not want to throw away your face mask just yet. Masks may be the key to keeping COVID-19 at bay and avoiding lockdowns in the future, new research suggests.

“As governments plan how to exit societal lockdowns, universal masking is emerging as one of the key NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) for containing or slowing the spread of the pandemic,” reports a study from April 2020.

Several cities in the United States are making masks mandatory when physical distancing isn’t possible.

For example, as San Francisco is reopening, people are required to wear face coverings when they see someone as far as 30 feet away.

Similarly, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that New York businesses can refuse entry to anyone not wearing a face mask.

And while there are still certain groups who either strongly oppose face masks, or at the very least, underestimate their importance, the fact of the matter is that face masks could very well be what helps get rid of this pandemic once and for all.

The study was conducted by researchers from several international universities, including the University of Cambridge, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Ecole de Guerre Économique in Paris, University College London, and Population Research Institute in Finland.

It focused on two hypothetical models for the COVID-19 pandemic predicting the impact of face masks on the spread of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

These models were implemented to demonstrate two things:

  • The significant impact of slowing the spread under universal masking (when at least 80 percent of the population wears masks) versus minimal impact when only 50 percent or less wore masks.
  • Significant impact on slowing the spread when universal masking is adopted in the early onset of the virus.

“The study demonstrates when the vast majority of people use a cloth face covering to cover the nose and mouth, it substantially decreases viral spread because the primary source of the virus spread comes from water vapor we exhale,” said Dr. Matthew Heinz, internist at Tucson Medical Center.

During the Obama administration, Heinz was the Director of Provider Outreach in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, part of the U.S. Health and Human Services.

“That is why it is one of the main recommendations we’re hearing from our top public health officials with regard to the pandemic,” he said.

The study’s models looked at countries with a culture of mass face mask wearing, most of which also made wearing masks in public mandatory during the epidemic.

Both models found that physical distancing alone — without the use of masks — isn’t enough to mitigate an increase in infection rate once lockdown is lifted. So much so, the study says, that it could lead to more than 1 million deaths in a population the size of the United Kingdom.

The study indicated that the use of both physical distancing and masking between 50 and 80 percent of the population results in a substantial reduction of infections.

But what’s most critical is that the models indicate that if 80–90 percent of the population wears masks, the disease will eventually be eliminated.

Without masking, the study says, we could be looking at a second wave in 4 to 5 months.

“As we reopen and more people are gathering and coming together, the last thing we want is a second wave, or even a worse wave than what we all just went through,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.

“We will be dealing [with COVID-19] for a while, but at least this way it will make it much more manageable and hopefully reduce spread among people,” she said.

Another study funded by the World Health Organization and published in the Lancet medical journal also found that using a mask could help limit the transmission of the virus.

“Although the direct evidence is limited, the use of masks in the community provides protection,” lead author Holger Schünemann, professor of the departments of health research methods, evidence, and impact, and medicine at McMaster University said in a statement. “And possibly N95 or similar respirators worn by healthcare workers suggest greater protection than other face masks.”

Don’t worry. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort in order to be safe.

Many people had complained early-on that medical grade masks like the N95 were uncomfortable. Experts agree, however, that even a simple cloth covering would go a long way.

The most important thing to remember is that the covering must go over the nose and mouth.

“I see many people with masks hanging below their chin,” said Parikh. “That doesn’t do anything.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even states that surgical masks and N95 respirators should ideally be reserved for healthcare workers. Cloth coverings are just fine, so long as you wash your hands before putting them on and cover your nose and mouth.

You should look for thick woven cloth that doesn’t let in sunlight.

Wearing masks is one of the most important ways we can help combat the spread of COVID-19. But it’s also important to remember the other ways we can help.

The CDC says:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time.
  • Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

The study showed that more than 80 percent of the population must commit to wearing masks in public in order for this to work.

“Both models predict significant reduction in the daily growth of infections on average, under universal masking by day 50 of an outbreak, but not if only 50 [percent] of the population wear masks or if [the] institution of universal masking is delayed,” it reports.

“You’re not wearing a mask to protect yourself from others. You’re doing it to decrease spread in the community,” said Heinz.

“It’s patriotic,” he added. “Taking care of the public healthcare crisis will make our transition to reopening and achieving some sense of normalcy easier and faster.”

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