By Elisabeth Buchwald
As the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, many people have grown accustomed to wearing a mask or facial covering when they’re outside of their homes.
Masks aren’t required in all U.S. states, but a new study suggests that a national mask mandate could significantly reduce COVID-19 deaths over the next few months, as flu season and increased indoor activities threaten to accelerate the pandemic’s health impacts.
If such a national mask mandate were in place, it could save nearly 130,000 lives by February 2021, according to forecasts made by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Their findings were published recently in Nature Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal.
In 39 U.S. states, it’s a requirement that people wear masks and in some places, failure to wear a facial covering can result in a fine. But in 11 states where masks are recommended, but not mandated, people in some areas can shop in supermarkets, ride public transportation and even go to school without a mask.
Two of those states, North Dakota and South Dakota, recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people at 5,019 and 4,492, respectively as of Tuesday, according to the New York Times’ coronavirus tracker.
That, in addition to survey evidence showing that people are still not wearing masks in public places, led Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the last three decades, to advocate for a national mask mandate . Previously, Fauci has generally stopped short of saying that the American people should be required to wear masks under a mandate.
The authors of the new University of Washington study arrived at their figures by using a model based on the following assumptions:
If closer to 85% of the U.S. population wore masks in public, under the same assumptions above, the researchers calculated that 96,000 lives would be saved between September 2020 and February 2021.
In the absence of a universal mask mandate, the researchers forecast that approximately 511,000 people total will have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. by February 2021. That’s also based on the assumption that businesses and schools will close if the daily death rate is at least 8 deaths per million population. It also takes into account survey evidence compiled from sources including Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +3.50% and YouGov that tracks people’s mask wearing behavior.
If 95% of the population in the U.S. wore masks, the researchers projected about 381,000 cumulative deaths in the U.S. by Feb. 2021.
“Under all scenarios evaluated here, the United States is likely to face a continued public health challenge from the COVID-19 pandemic through 28 February 2021 and beyond, with populous states in particular potentially facing high levels of illness, deaths and ICU demands as a result of the disease,” the study states.
As of Tuesday, COVID-19 had infected 43.3 million people worldwide, which for the most part does not account for asymptomatic cases, and killed 1.2 million people. The U.S. still has the world’s highest number of cases and deaths (over 8.6 million and 225,792, respectively), Johns Hopkins University reported.
Fauci acknowledges that even with a universal mask mandate “there’s going to be a difficulty enforcing it.”
“But if everyone agrees that this is something that’s important, and they mandate it and everybody pulls together and says, you know, we’re going to mandate it but let’s just do it, I think that would be a great idea,” he said .
Democratic Presidental candidate Joe Biden supports a national mask mandate and said Friday that if he’s elected he will “go to every governor and urge them to mandate mask wearing in their states.”
“If they refuse, I’ll go to the mayors and county executives and get local masking requirements in place nationwide,” he added at a campaign rally in Wilmington, Del.
That said, even in countries like Spain, where a national mask mandate has been in place since mid-May, controlling the spread of the coronavirus has still proved to be challenging .