All the talk about face masks is obscuring the importance of another COVID-fighting tool

  • Coronavirus transmission is still continuing pretty much unchecked across the US right now, as COVID-19 cases keep surging ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
  • A new research study suggests that while face masks are important in curbing the spread of coronavirus, social distancing is even more important.
  • This comes as the latest data from Johns Hopkins University shows that more than 12.3 million coronavirus cases have been identified this year in the US.

The latest data from Johns Hopkins University reveals the ominous extent to which the coronavirus pandemic is still rampaging across the US, resulting in a number of localities and states moving to re-institute lockdowns and restrictions on businesses. To date, more than 12.3 million COVID-19 cases have been identified in the US, while more than 257,000 Americans have died, according to Johns Hopkins.

The degree to which those numbers reflect that coronavirus transmission is continuing unchecked around the country is why officials like Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager, have been urging people not to travel if at all possible over the Thanksgiving holiday — typically, one of the busiest times of the year for travel.

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It’s not because people are trying to cancel the Thanksgiving holiday or want to keep families from ever seeing each other again. The problem is that what a holiday like Thanksgiving entails — often multiple generations of families, sitting down together in one room, around one table, and enjoying a meal in close proximity (not to mention hugs and other forms of contact later) — is the exact opposite of what public officials say is one of the best tools we have right now to use for protecting ourselves against the coronavirus.

In fact, social distancing may be the best tool, if you had to rank order them — though face masks of course would be a close second. Face masks, of course, protect you from germs spread by someone in your vicinity, while social distancing can keep anyone out of your vicinity in the first place. (But this doesn’t mean you should put on a face mask and rush back out headlong into society, with some people apparently seeing it as an either-or proposition).

According to a new research study conducted by a team from Simon Fraser University, social distancing was found to be “universally effective” at curbing the spread of COVID-19, per a summary from the Knowridge Science Report, “while social bubbles and masks are more situation-dependent.”

The researchers “note that masks and other physical barriers may be less effective in saturating, high transmission settings (parties, choirs, restaurant kitchens, crowded offices, nightclubs, and bars) because even if masks halve the transmission rates that may not have much impact on the transmission probability (and so on the number of infections).”

To conduct this analysis, the researchers looked at data on outbreaks from a variety of different events and places, like parties, nightclubs, and restaurants. By introducing a concept the researchers label as “event R,” they were able to determine the number of people who would become infected with the virus thanks to the actions of just one person at a particular event. Additionally, the researchers looked at factors including how long people were exposed and how physically close they were to each other.

According to the Knowridge Science Report: “They say that an individual’s chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 depend heavily on the transmission rate and the duration — the amount of time spent in a particular setting.”

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