Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives by spring

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Universal mask-wearing could prevent nearly 130,000 deaths from COVID-19 through the end of February, according to new research released Friday.

The analysis, published in the journal Nature Medicine, found that even if only 85 percent of the population wore masks in public, nearly 96,000 lives could be saved.

But without universal masking, which the study defined as 95 percent compliance, more than a half a million lives could be lost to COVID-19, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected.

The most optimistic scientists do not predict the availability of new coronavirus treatments before 2021, and a vaccine might not be widely available until April at the earliest. 

That means until there is a vaccine, masks and other non-pharmaceutical measures such as physical distancing are the only real ways to reduce transmission of the virus.

The findings match what public health officials have been saying for months, but mask-wearing is still controversial. Only 49 percent of Americans said they always wear a mask in public.

The researchers acknowledged that 95 percent mask use rate is aspirational, but noted that neighborhoods in New York have reached that threshold, while states including Virginia, Florida and California have achieved 60 percent adoption of a mask use policy.

Some governors still refuse to issue a mask mandate even as the virus spreads nearly uncontrolled across the country. Others have been rolling back their coronavirus restrictions, including mask mandates.

Under the worst-case scenario the researchers modeled, if states continue to roll back their restrictions, there could be more than 1 million deaths nationwide by Feb. 28. 

Last week, President Trump questioned the effectiveness of masks during a Fox News interview and during his televised town hall event. Trump, and other conservatives, falsely suggested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 85 percent of people who wear masks catch the virus.

Top White House health adviser Scott Atlas also tweeted that masks are ineffective, a tweet that was eventually removed for spreading misinformation. 

The study painted a grim picture of the coming months. Even if physical distancing mandates were in place in every state, researchers said more than 500,000 people could die by March.

The implementation of measures such as school closures, restrictions of gatherings, stay-at-home orders and the partial or full closure of nonessential businesses as soon as a state hits eight daily deaths per million people “could dramatically ameliorate the effects of the disease,” the researchers said.

Achieving near-universal mask use could delay a second wave of the virus and make such strict measures unnecessary, but Americans will have to make a choice.

“It is likely that U.S. residents will need to choose between higher levels of mask use or risk the frequent redeployment of more stringent and economically damaging [restrictions]; or, in the absence of either measure, face a reality of a rising death toll,” the study concluded.

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