New research just published in the highly respected journal Nature Medicine estimates that if 95 percent of Americans wore face masks when out in public, the fall-winter surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths that has already started could be throttled back, resulting in 130,000 fewer deaths between now and the end of February. Near universal use of face masks could save more than 40 percent of the lives at risk from the coronavirus across the US in the coming months.
"Expanding face mask use can be an easy win for the United States," says Dr. Christopher Murray, at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the study's lead author. "It can delay the imposition of social distancing mandates and save many lives."
Murray and his colleagues have been tracking and modeling the current pandemic, first on a state-by-state basic across the US, and now country-by-country worldwide. They have developed and refined a sophisticated model that matches multiple kinds of data, including people's mobility an mask use, what mandates are in place, rates of testing and results, seasonal risk, etc., with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. They now believe that the model is accurate enough to let project several months into the future.
"The key implication," Murray says, "is that we are heading into a very substantial fall-winter surge, so the idea that the pandemic is going away, we don't believe is true. We expect the surge to grow in various states and at the national level, heading towards high levels of daily deaths in December and January, and very high levels of cumulative deaths."
Without high levels of face mask use and social distancing measures, the reseaarchers estimate that the cumulative COVID-19 death toll for the US could reach 500,000 by the end of February.
Murray and his co-researchers believe that their model and predictions can be of use both to individuals and to policy makers. "This long-range view is important for decision makers," says Murray. "It could help them avoid what we're seeing across Europe right now."
There has been a lot of commentary recently that even though the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations are going up, fewer people are dying from COVID. In the second debate with Joe Biden, President Trump cited this as a reason for optimism. Murray, however, cautions against relaxing personal and public protections based on this impression. "We've been studying this, but we have not yet found an effect," says Murray. "If it has occurred, it's not a big effect yet. So our model does not yet include any change in the mortality rate."
The bottom line from this new research is that a seasonal surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths has already started and is going to continue through the fall and winter. Some states will be hit harder than others, as we've seen earlier in the epidemic. Murray expects that many states will have to re-impose strict limits on certain businesses, on public and private gatherings, school attendance, etc. Given the degree to which the coronavirus is already circulating throughout the US, Murray points out that mask wearing alone won't be enough to end the epidemic. But it can make a huge difference--and save more than 100,000 lives.
"It's very difficult from where we are in the US to prevent a fall-winter surge," Murray says. "However, universal mask wearing can prevent or delay much of that surge."
(Article changed on October 24, 2020 at 14:59)