Face coverings, social distancing can reduce COVID-19 spread by up to 65%

Wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and washing hands regularly could reduce the spread of COVID-19 by as much as 65%, according to an analysis published Tuesday by the journal PLOS Medicine.

Researchers from the Netherlands also estimate that government-imposed social distancing measures — including closure of non-essential businesses and “stay-at-home” orders — can delay the peak of an epidemic by up to seven months, allowing the healthcare system time to prepare.

“Mask-wearing can be helpful in controlling an epidemic, [assuming that] mask efficacy is sufficiently high and a vast majority of the population [wears them],” co-author Ganna Rozhnova, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Utrecht, told UPI.

“It is important to note that different types of masks have different efficacies in preventing transmission from an infectious person, and incorrect mask use also decreases the efficacy of a mask,” she said.

Rozhnova and her colleagues developed their estimates using a model that assumes an infection rate of 46 cases per 1,000 people at the peak of the epidemic, which is about four times the current rate in the United States.

They then assessed the impact of “self-imposed” spread prevention measures like mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, as well as government-ordered lockdowns on the infection rate, the researchers said.

The model also took into account the fact that the effectiveness of these approaches varies based on how widely they are adopted and whether they are correctly implemented, they said.

A study published in June by the Journal of Infection Prevention found that N99 masks, which are used by healthcare workers and are designed to filter airborne particles — including the respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19 — were up to 99 percent effective at blocking the virus even after a 20-minute exposure.

In addition, even homemade face coverings like scarves were more than 40% effective at preventing virus transmission, according to the study.

In the model developed by Rozhnova and her colleagues, even if mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing were 50% effective at reducing virus spread, adoption of all three by most of the population could prevent a large epidemic, the researchers said.

The 65% reduction in cases assumes an effectiveness of 30% for these measures, they said.

“A combination of two or three of them adopted by a large part of a population might be sufficient to significantly reduce the epidemic size or help prevent a large epidemic altogether, including the second epidemic wave,” Rozhnova told UPI.

Education of the public on the threat posed by COVID-19 and importance of taking steps to slow its spread are vital, according to she and her colleagues.

“Individual behavior may be essential for changing the course of this epidemic, whereas temporary government-imposed interventions may have a high risk of an epidemic resurgence when lifted,” Rozhnova said.

“If nearly all of a population adopted self-imposed measures, we would not have to confront the possibility of secondary lockdowns, as well as the possibility that we may find our medical systems overwhelmed during the peak of epidemic.”

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