Masks vital in fight against Covid-19, study finds
Johannesburg – As anti-mask protests continue to spread across South Africa, new research is showing that mask wearing is saving lives.
A study conducted by mathematical modellers has concluded that face coverings could have reduced the number of Covid-19 cases in Italy by more than 30 000 during the first wave of the pandemic last year.
The researchers used official Italian data and published their results in the academic journal Infectious Diseases.
"We found an excellent correspondence between nationwide lockdown and the peak of the epidemic in late March 2020, suggesting that this measure (mask wearing) is the main factor in stopping the spread of the virus," said the lead author of the study associate professor Morten Gram Pedersen at the Department of Information Engineering of the University of Padova, in a statement.
“Surprisingly, we identified further drops in viral transmission in mid-April 2020 within certain regions, which corresponded well with the provision of free face masks and/or their mandatory use. We did not see this reduction in places that did not introduce any additional local interventions at that time.”
Italy was one of the first countries to introduce mask wearing when the virus swept the country in early March, 2020. The country went into full lockdown between March 11 and May 4, last year.
The researchers compared data from eight demographically similar Italian regions that had introduced control measures at different times, or did not impose additional restrictions, beyond those introduced nationally.
“We found a change point reflecting a peak in the number of new cases for all eight regions that correspond well with the lockdown imposed between the 8th to 11th March 2020 depending on the region,” said Pedersen.
“Five of the eight regions showed further change points during April 2020 that corresponded well with the introduction of additional general containment measures, mandatory face mask use and/or distribution of free face masks.”
The team looked for other explanations that would account for the decline in new cases in late April 2020, in these regions. But they could not find any.
“Several recent studies have advocated for the use of face masks, and our work is in line with other recent regional studies in Germany and the USA that correlate widespread face mask use with a reduction in the spread of Covid-19,” said Pedersen.
“The reopening of society in May did not lead to any change in the decay rate. Therefore, our findings lend further support to the importance of face mask use in addition to lockdowns and other public health measures for the control of Covid-19.”
The co-author of the study, Matteo Meneghini, however, warned that mask wearing has to be part of a holistic approach to fighting the disease.
"The benefit of face mask wearing appears to be largely a cohort effect operating at the public-health, rather than the individual, level,” said the associate professor at the Department of Information Engineering at Padova.
"We stress, however, that whenever the situation is critical, face masks are insufficient and should be used in addition to other containment measures such as partial or total lockdowns, to provide further contribution to public health protection.”