Study: Mix of hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing could stop most COVID-19 outbreaks

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its rapid spread across the globe, public health experts and policymakers have sought to better understand how to “flatten the curve” on a rising tide of cases. 

Researchers behind a new study found that both self-imposed prevention measures — such as washing hands, wearing a mask and social distancing — combined with government-imposed shutdowns, could help mitigate and delay the COVID-19 pandemic, even without a vaccine or treatment.

The study, published July 21 in the journal PLoS Medicine by researchers from University Medical Center Utrecht in The Netherlands, used a new model to study the predicted effect of various COVID-19 prevention methods.

The model showed that if a population quickly becomes aware of the virus and practices prevention measures such as hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing, these efforts can both diminish and postpone the peak number of cases.

"We estimate that a large epidemic can be prevented if the efficacy of these measures exceeds 50%," the study authors wrote.

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Throughout the pandemic, experts have stressed the importance of “flattening the curve” or peak as to not overwhelm healthcare systems with critically-ill patients.

The model found that if the public is slow to catch on to these self-imposed prevention measures, but does eventually adopt them, it may reduce the number of cases — but not delay a peak in cases. 

If governments shut down early and no personal protective steps are taken by the public, it would delay but not reduce the peak in COVID-19 cases. A three month intervention could delay the peak by at most seven months, the model found.

By utilizing both government-imposed physical distancing guidelines and widespread public practicing of personal preventative measures, the study found that those combination of efforts has the potential to both delay and shrink the peak of the pandemic.

A woman wears a face mask in Leeds on July 23, 2020, as lockdown restrictions continue to be eased during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The study authors argue that governments should educate the public about how hand-washing, social distancing and wearing a mask can play a crucial role in controlling the outbreak.

"We stress the importance of disease awareness in controlling the ongoing epidemic and recommend that, in addition to policies on social distancing, government and public health institutions mobilize people to adopt self-imposed measures with proven efficacy in order to successfully tackle COVID-19," the study authors said.

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More than 15 million people have contracted COVID-19 around the world, including nearly 4 million in the U.S., according to July 23 data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Research conducted over the course of the pandemic has shown that wearing a mask, specifically, is an effective way to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission. According to a widely-cited coronavirus pandemic model used by the White House, if almost everyone wears a mask in public over the next few months, tens of thousands of lives could be saved in the U.S.

The study authors in the Netherlands noted how their model does not account for demographics, nor the “imperfect isolation” of people with severe COVID-19. The model also doesn’t account for the possibility of reinfection.

In response to the study, Professor Yuming Guo of Monash University in Australia and colleagues wrote that these findings are important for not only minimizing initial outbreaks of COVID-19 — but for strategies to prevent future outbreaks.

"Many of the self-imposed prevention strategies have very limited impact on the economy but contribute very significantly to epidemic control and are likely to play a very substantial role in control," they wrote.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.