The price for not wearing masks: perhaps 130,000 lives

  • >>Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-24 18:05:05 BdST

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Commuters wearing protective face masks are seen on board a train, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, Oct 24, 2020. REUTERS

Universal mask use could prevent nearly 130,000 deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in the United States through next spring, scientists reported Friday.

The findings follow an assertion by Dr Scott Atlas, the president’s science adviser, that masks are ineffective, in a tweet later taken down by Twitter for spreading misinformation. On Wednesday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance recommending mask use in public settings, including public transportation.

A surge of infections, driven in part by neglect of safety precautions, has begun to overwhelm hospitals in much of the nation. More than 75,000 new cases were reported in the United States on Thursday, the second-highest daily total nationwide since the pandemic began. Eight states set single-day case records.

These numbers are likely to continue through the fall and winter, with a steady rise in cases and deaths until January and staying high after that point, said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and lead author of the report.

Other experts cautioned that, as with any model, the new estimates are based on many assumptions and should not be seen as predictions.

Shweta Bansal, an infectious disease modeller at Georgetown University who was not involved in the new work, said the model should be seen as a “sophisticated thought experiment” whose conclusions can significantly change if people alter their behaviour.

Murray and his colleagues analysed the number of cases, testing rates, mask use and cellphone data to estimate people’s movements from the first recorded case in each state through Sept 21. They then estimated the death toll until March 2021 for each state, with or without mandates for social distancing and mask use.

If many states continue to roll back the mandates in place, the team found, the number of deaths by Feb. 28 could top 1 million, with one-third occurring in California, Florida and Pennsylvania.

As of Sept. 20, just under half of Americans reported that they always wear a mask. But regular mask use by 95% of the population would save 129,574 lives, according to the new analysis. Regular mask use by just 85% of Americans could prevent 95,814 deaths by March 2021, possibly forestalling restrictive lockdowns, Murray said.

© 2020 New York Times News Service