The nation's patchwork of COVID-19 mandates and the inconsistent use of masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus could lead to the cumulative loss of more than half a million lives by the end of February, scientists say.
Researchers from the University of Washington's School of Medicine predicted that current state strategies surrounding social distancing, phased reopenings and mask mandates could lead to 511,373 deaths by Feb. 28, according to a study published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine.
But scientists also predicted nearly 130,000 lives could be saved from the end of September through the end of February if at least 95% of the population wore masks in public. If only 85% wore masks, nearly 96,000 deaths could be prevented, they said.
"We are heading into a very substantial fall-winter surge," said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington's School of Medicine. "We expect that surge to steadily grow throughout different states, and at the national level continue to increase as we head toward quite high levels of daily death in late December and January."
The report comes as the U.S. surpassed 83,000 new cases two days in a row this weekend, the highest daily totals on record. The nation had nearly 8.6 million cases as of Sunday and hit 225,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
A USA TODAY analysis of the data through late Saturday shows 19 states set records for new cases in a week, and record numbers of deaths were reported in five states: Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco, said it's unfortunate that in the U.S. wearing a face mask has become a political or emotional issue rather than a scientific principle.
Minds aren't likely to be changed by modeling data forecasts, she said, but they can be a useful tool until enough virologic, epidemiological and ecological evidence is amassed to elevate masking to a definitive intervention.
“Short of taking humans, putting a mask on them and then spraying them with SARS-CoV-2, which would be absolutely unfeasible and unethical, this study is very thorough and nicely done,” Gandhi said.
Bob Bednarczyk, assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said Americans may be getting lax as the pandemic drags on.
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"Pandemic fatigue is a real thing," he said. "(This model) is a good reminder of what can happen if we let our guard down and how this can really come back at us really quickly and really forcefully and lead to a lot of death and suffering."
While model predictions are never perfect, the study’s findings are on track with other recently published data.
A study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond found the pandemic caused more than 225,000 deaths from March to July, suggesting deaths could reach as high as 400,000 by the end of the year as the University of Washington had predicted.
Though they may shock the public, Bednarczyk says, the projection models should reinforce the value of masks so death tolls fall short of these numbers.
"People need to start taking this seriously again," he said. "We want to understand how bad it can possibly get if nothing is done, and then we can use that to hopefully work our way back a little bit."
There's solid data showing that wearing a face mask protects the person wearing it from getting COVID-19 and protects those around them from getting the disease if the wearer is infected.
Public health officials have been calling for Americans to wear masks for months. In July, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said doing so could bring the pandemic to heel in less than two months.
"If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think over the next four, six, eight weeks, I really think we can bring this under control," he said in an interview with the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Wearing a cloth face covering is estimated to screen out 65% to 85% of viral particles, said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The fewer viral particles that enter the body, the greater chance the body has to fight them off.
While cloth face coverings aren't 100% effective, "wearing them means you're exposed to less virus. Less is coming in from other people and you're inhaling less," said Dr. John Brooks, a medical epidemiologist and the CDC's chief medical officer for the agency’s COVID-19 response.
"It's a win-win."
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Contributing: Mike Stucka
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Current COVID strategies could cause more than 500K deaths by Feb. 28