Masks for All Could Save 130,000 U.S. Lives by February 28

Half-a-million Americans could die before spring without stepped-up prevention

Photo: Kilito Chan/Getty Images

If the federal government were to mandate masks for everyone today, and 95% of people complied, nearly 130,000 people would not die in the United States between now and February 28, 2021, according to a new analysis in the journal Nature Medicine.

Without such a mandate, and given the current pace of new infections and the status of other prevention efforts across the country, or lack thereof, the U.S. death toll will likely climb by 291,000, from the current level of more than 220,000 to around 511,000 by the end of February, the analysis concludes. (Given many variables, the projection for lives that could be lost ranges from 469,578 to 578,347.)

The study is based on data collected through September 21. The near-record pace of new Covid-19 cases and the uptick in daily deaths this week is just what the research predicted, says study leader Christopher Murray, MD, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington. Covid-19 infections are growing rapidly across the United States, with hospitalizations and deaths poised to explode as winter sets in, Murray and his colleagues write.

“We are heading into a very substantial fall/winter surge, so the idea that the pandemic is going away… we do not believe is true,” Murray told reporters in an online press conference. “The turn this week, where deaths and cases are now going up at the national level, is very much in line with what the paper is suggesting.”

As the analysis shows, masks could save a lot of those lives, but other measures — including lockdowns where outbreaks get really bad — would be needed to fully slow or stop the all-but-inevitable trajectory of the pandemic predicted in recent days by other experts. The new projections, part of an ongoing effort with weekly updates, rely on complex calculations involving state-by-state examinations of several factors and trends, including:

  • Current case counts and death trends
  • Mobility based on data collected via cell phones
  • Air pollution, which is known to increase Covid transmission and deaths
  • Mask use based on public surveys
  • Population density
  • Testing per capita

Also considered: States that have fared poorly at controlling the pandemic in the past are projected to struggle in the future, Murray explains.

The resulting estimate of deaths is in line with what other infectious disease experts have been projecting. If left to circulate the way it is now, without stricter mitigation efforts, scientists fear up to 1 million Americans will die of Covid-19 before any possible vaccine changes the picture. A successful vaccine, assuming one emerges, is not expected to be available on a widespread basis before the end of February, most experts agree.

Separately, other research analyzing excess deaths so far this year, compared to previous years, projects that pandemic will have taken 400,000 American lives by the end of 2020. That projection factors in deaths caused directly by Covid-19 along with many more owing to heart attacks, cancers, and other physical and mental health issues not properly cared for because of the pandemic’s overload on the health care system and some peoples’ reluctance to seek care.

How things actually play out still depends on decisions made at the national and state level, of course, as well as whether or not more Americans decide on their own to avoid crowds, keep distance, and mask up. “Expanding mask use can be one of the sort of easy wins for the United States,” Murray says. It can both delay the reimposition of social distancing mandates and can save many, many lives.”

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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