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How to save 500,000 lives by March, even without a coronavirus vaccine

  • Researchers have studied the impact of various health measures on the coronavirus pandemic and concluded that one simple measure can help save some 500,000 lives by March, even if there’s no COVID-19 cure or vaccine by then.
  • The scientists modeled various scenarios using different social distancing and face mask parameters.
  • The study said more than one million Americans might die by early March if social distancing measures are relaxed. The death toll could be as low as 380,000 if social distancing and face masks are widely used.
  • The higher the percentage of people who wear face masks in public, the lower the death toll. Even without social distancing, face mask use alone for 95% of the population would save nearly half a million lives.

The novel coronavirus death rate isn’t going up with every new surge in case numbers, but thousands of people continue to die every day worldwide as the virus continues to spread. Doctors have devised therapies and protocols that can help save lives, but there’s no COVID-19 cure that can save everyone. The global death toll surpassed 1.18 million as of Wednesday morning. More than 232,000 people died of COVID-19 complications in the US alone, including 989 just yesterday. As the number of cases continues to climb, so will the number of fatalities.

A new study modeled the US COVID-19 epidemic’s evolution through March 2021, offering various scenarios for the months ahead. The researchers concluded that one simple thing might save more than 500,000 lives during that period of time, even if COVID-19 vaccines and cures remain elusive. Unsurprisingly, all it would take is the universal use of masks, which could significantly reduce infection rate without forcing authorities to impose new lockdowns.

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Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington modeled five different scenarios for a paper published a few days ago in Nature Medicine, via StarTribune. Scenario 1 proposes that states continue to remove social distancing measures. Some 1,053,206 Americans would die by February 28th, with more than 152 million infections across the country. Scenario 2 modeled the other extreme, suggesting that states would shut down again after reaching 8 deaths per day per million people. This would result in 511,468 COVID-19 deaths out and 71 million infections nationwide.

Scenario 3 offers a combination of universal mask usage and lockdowns after the same threshold of 8 daily deaths per million people. This is the ideal scenario, where 95% of the people in each state would wear masks in public, nearly double the current 49% estimate. The death toll would still be significant at 381,798 people by the end of February, but the US would register 671,408 fewer deaths than the first scenario. It’s also nearly 130,000 fewer deaths compared to Scenario 2, where there still wouldn’t be any mask mandates. Scenario 3 would reduce the number of infections by 17.4 million.

The fourth scenario is a variation of Scenario 3, proposing that only 85% of the population wears masks in public. The number of deaths would be slightly higher at 415,654, but still far lower than the first two scenarios.

Finally, the last scenario only calls for universal mask use (the same 95%) and no social distancing. Nearly 563,000 people would die by the end of February, but face masks would save nearly half a million lives during the period, compared to Scenario 1.

“It is likely that U.S. residents will need to choose between higher levels of mask use or risk the frequent redeployment of more stringent and economically damaging SDMs,” or social distancing measures, the researchers wrote. The alternative is to “face a reality of a rising death toll.”

As with other COVID-19 studies, more research is needed to reinforce the results. Moreover, this is a study that attempts to model the pandemic’s behavior and such forecasts have limitations. A different prediction said America’s COVID-19 death toll would go to 300,000 to 400,000 this winter. But the potential impact of universal face mask use is certainly something authorities should keep in mind. Dr. Anthony Fauci said a few days ago that nationwide mask mandates should be considered.

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