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Universal Masks in U.S. Could Save 130,000 Lives Before Vaccine

Universal masking in the U.S. could save some 130,000 lives by the end of February, according to projections by some of the nation’s top Covid-19 trackers at the University of Washington.

The analysis, which appeared Friday in the journal Nature Medicine, models the impact of different levels of social distancing on the trajectory of the pandemic from this fall to the end of February 2021. White House officials and public health leaders said they don’t expect a vaccine to be widely available until March or April, which means wearing masks and other non-pharmaceutical measures will likely be the only option to reduce the spread of the virus until the end of February.

“We show that expanding mask use can be one of the easy wins for the United States,” Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, said in a Friday press briefing. “It can both delay the re-imposition of social distancing mandates and can safe many lives.”

IHME researchers analyzed how the virus spread across states from the first recorded case in the U.S. to Sept. 21. They then used those data to project how adherence to mask use and other variables, such as seasonal pneumonia and testing rates, would impact virus spread from Sept. 22, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021.

Universal masking—which they defined as 95% of the population wearing masks in public—could save an additional 129,574 lives in that time. If mask compliance dropped to to 85%, it would save an 95,814 lives. Without universal masking, more than a half a million lives could be lost due to Covid-19, IHME projected.

“The potential life-saving benefit of increasing mask use in the coming fall and winter cannot be overstated. 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 social distancing mandates,” the report said.

Only 49% Americans say they always wear a mask in public. Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that if elected, he would “have everyone encouraged all the time” to wear masks. President Donald Trump typically doesn’t make it a point to encourage them.

The IHME researchers said 95% mask use rate in the U.S. is aspirational, but noted that neighborhoods in New York have reached that threshold, while states like Virginia, Florida, and California have achieved 60% adoption of a mask use policy.

As cases surge across Europe, using models that have this long range view can help decision makers put plans in place to avoid that exponential growth. “We really need to be anticipating that, both in terms of hospital care as well as trying to expand mask use and thinking about what set of mandates each state is going to have to reconsider if our forecasts come to be true,” Murray said.

“We are heading into a very substantial fall-winter surge so the idea that the pandemic is going away, we do not believe is true,” he added.


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