By Ethen Kim Lieser
A new study conducted by a team of researchers in Texas and California has found that not wearing a face mask dramatically increases a person’s chance of being infected by the COVID-19 virus.
The team utilized data to compare coronavirus infection rate trends in Italy and New York—both before and after face masks were made mandatory.
According to the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both locations started to witness lower infection rates after the face mask measures were enforced.
Researchers claimed that wearing face masks prevented more than 78,000 infections in Italy between April 6 and May 9, and more than 66,000 infections in New York City between April 17 and May 9.
“We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, prior to the development of a vaccine,” the study said.
One of the study’s authors, Renyi Zhang, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, added in a statement: “Our results clearly show that airborne transmission via respiratory aerosols represents the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19.”
The study noted that in contrast with China and other Asian countries, the wearing of face masks was not seen as a necessity in most of the Western world during the early outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This could partly explain the high infection rates in the U.S. and Europe, according to researchers.
Amid the ongoing fight against the coronavirus, Zhang said the study’s results should send a clear message to people worldwide.
“Our work suggests that the failure in containing the propagation of COVID-19 pandemic worldwide is largely attributed to the unrecognized importance of airborne virus transmission,” he said.
“Social-distancing and washing our hands must continue, but that’s not sufficient enough protection. Wearing a face mask as well as practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing will greatly reduce the chances of anyone contracting the COVID-19 virus.”
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization updated its advice to recommend the wearing of fabric face masks in high-risk areas.
Meantime, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams over the weekend urged people to wear face coverings, saying they will promote “freedom” during the pandemic.
“Some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice—but if more wear them, we'll have MORE freedom to go out,” Adams tweeted.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.