Since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March, contrary opinions about the effectiveness of masks against the spread of the virus have dominated discussions both online and in real life.
A recent study conducted by a group of BYU researchers may have put those arguments to rest.
The research group is headed by Ben Abbott, a faculty member in Plant and Wildlife who teaches in the environmental science department. The other three authors of the study – Mitchell Greenhalgh, Isaac St. Clair and Jonas Bush – are undergraduates.
They identified 115 scientific studies on COVID-19 by independent groups from all around the U.S. and the world.
The BYU group wrote in the executive summary of its study that, “Researchers from hospitals, universities, the private sector and government agencies have concluded that masks could be one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools to stop COVID-19 and accelerate the economic recovery.”
Last week a friend with serious questions about masks and the virus prompted Abbott to begin his research to put together a non-technical summary.
“Given how many scientific studies have come out on COVID just in the past three months, there was no way I could have done that alone on a reasonable time frame, so I turned to my lab group to get some help,” Abbot said. “Three of my undergraduate students stepped up. The issue is so timely and important that we worked on the report night and day until it came out.”
The researchers found convincing evidence from multiple controlled experiments and field observations that wearing a cloth mask can stop up to 90% of the dispersal droplets carrying the virus. They concluded that masks are highly safe, with only minor and uncommon side effects.
“When we went through the studies that mask skeptics were sharing on social media, we found that literally every one was being taken out of context or blatantly misinterpreted,” Abbott said.
In addition, there is universal agreement that masking alone will not be enough to stop the pandemic. Physical distancing, frequent handwashing, rapid testing and coordinated contact tracing are also key in the effort to beat the virus. They added that public masking works through source control, where “my mask protects you, and your mask protects me.”
Wearing a mask is also considered the best way to keep the virus from having disastrous effects on the nation’s economy, according to the study.
“The most recent analysis by Goldman Sachs suggests that increasing masking by 25 percentage points from current levels would cut the COVID-19 growth rate by three-fold and prevent the need for a second round of economic shutdowns,” the group wrote. “They predict this would result in an economic benefit of approximately $1 trillion. Another study found that 80% of the population wearing cloth masks when in public would be more effective at stopping the virus than a strict lockdown of the whole population.”
Abbott said it came as a surprise how clear the evidence was on public masking.
“We expected there to be a lot of side-effects and only mild benefits, but instead, we found overwhelming evidence that masking could turn the tide on the pandemic,” he said. “When public masking gets to 80% or higher, rates of COVID transmission and also the lethality of COVID infections drop sharply. It’s not known why the death rate drops so much with masking, but the leading hypothesis is that when you are exposed to fewer viral particles, you may still get the disease, but the symptoms are much milder.”
The reaction to the study has been overwhelming for Abbott and his team.
“We’ve published over 50 scientific papers, but we’ve never gotten as much response as we have for this report on COVID,” he said. “I think that the people of Utah sincerely want to know the real information about this threat so they can protect their families and so we can get back to normal life.
“We are grateful that so many people are taking this seriously and considering all available evidence as they decide how to react to COVID-19. Masks could be one of our most powerful tools to fight this virus and our fastest and safest bridge back to normal. However, we need 80% or more of the public to wear masks to get there.”
Abbott said he and his research group did not receive any funding to carry out the work and didn’t plan on seeking financial support.
“The fact that some people still don’t believe this science is a grim reminder about what happens when we put politics before reality,” he said. “The blatant politicization of masks has cost us precious lives, time and money.”
For the complete study, which is entitled, “Making Sense of the Research on COVID-19 and Masks,” go to https://pws.byu.edu/covid-19-and-masks.