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BYU scientists find that masks work to slow spread of COVID-19

BYU team looks at research on masks and COVID-19
Posted at 11:07 AM, Jul 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-20 19:37:53-04

PROVO, Utah — Whether or not to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic has been a hot issue in Utah and across the United States.

A project at Brigham Young University is aimed at "making sense" of the available research into whether masks make a difference, and if so, which ones are most effective.

While science points to evidence that a mask can help mitigate the spread of the disease, others feel it is a violation of their personal rights and freedom to be told to wear a mask.

Governor Gary Herbert has so far not implemented a statewide mask mandate, saying he hopes common sense will motivate Utahns to wear a mask.

Some cities and counties have implemented guidelines calling for the wearing of masks in public when social distancing can't be achieved, and many major retailers will no longer allow customers in stores unless they are wearing a mask.

A four-member team of scientists "felt a responsibility to respond to the technical questions asked by friends and family."

They compiled and read over 115 scientific studies on COVID-19. These studies were done by independent groups from all around the U.S. and the world. The team says it did its best to accurately reflect the scientific evidence, pointing out where it is solid and where there is still uncertainty.

There are three sections, with increasing levels of detail:

  • An executive summary.
  • A list of common questions.
  • A deep dive.

Following are the key findings in the executive summary. For the question and answer and the deep dive segments, as well as footnotes to all of the source material, click here. The deep dive segment compares masks including N95, cloth and surgical-type masks.

Executive Summary:

In the first few months of the pandemic, there was scientific uncertainty about the usefulness of public masking. Conflicting guidance was given by several official sources.

  1. There is now convincing evidence from multiple controlled experiments and field observations that wearing masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19 for healthcare workers and the public. Most of this evidence is COVID-19 specific and has emerged in the past few months.
  2. Masks prevent infected people from spreading the virus to others by trapping the respiratory droplets (tiny moisture particles) that are produced when we cough, speak, and breath. Cloth masks can stop 90% or more of the dispersal of droplets carrying the virus. There is some evidence that cloth masks also protect the wearer from infection, though this is less certain.
  3. Masks are highly safe, with only minor and uncommon side effects. In addition to many medical studies, public masking has been proven safe among children, adults, and the elderly in cultures where this practice has long been common. However, some sensitive individuals should not wear masks, such as those with compromised respiratory systems and individuals who cannot remove or adjust their own masks (children under 2 and people with severe disabilities).
  4. 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. There is universal agreement, however, that masking alone will not be enough to stop the pandemic. Masking is most effective when combined with physical distancing, frequent handwashing, rapid testing, and coordinated contact tracing.