Even though face masks have become highly politicized, science shows that wearing a mask does in fact reduce virus transmission. Still, the data varies on the degree that it helps, so one research team set out to provide a clearer way to understand it.
By doing a meta-analysis of a number of studies, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that if 95% of people wear masks, it reduces transmission by 30%. NPR put these findings into chart form, showing what happens when people don’t wear masks compared to what happens when 95% of the population masks up.
In NPR’s hypothetical case study, infected people not wearing masks pass on the virus to an average of 1.03 people. According to the IHME research, wearing a mask cuts that by 30%, meaning they would pass on the virus to .72 people. The charts start with 10 cases, represented by dark orange dots. But from there, they start to look a lot less similar: the orange dots continue to increase on the left, and they drop off on the right at an even faster pace. After 35 days, 89 people are infected on the “no masks” side, whereas only 33 people are infected over the same period when people are wearing masks. Without a mask, the virus increases exponentially, and the chart shows how new cases continue to grow; meanwhile, wearing a mask means that new cases actually decline.
This has deadly serious real world applications. The IHME team forecasts that nearly 80,000 more people will die from COVID-19 if transmission stays on its current trajectory. But if Americans adopt the pattern on the right side of the chart, and 95% wear masks, about 34,000 lives could be saved, according to team member Ali Mokdad.
As cases continue to climb (with 18 states setting daily records in the past week), Trump and some Republicans have started to finally change their tune and actually encourage face masks. While the issue still gets politicized, recent polling shows three out of four Americans support a mask requirement, including a majority of Republicans.
Universal masking will lead to reduced transmissions, which could mean avoiding more economic shutdowns and letting everyone get back to the hobbies, people, and places they enjoy a little bit sooner. A return to normalcy doesn’t have to be wishful thinking.