Persisting with masks after vaccination has major economic, health benefits, Lancet study says

This is an article by Abantika Ghosh published on 9 March in The Print, an Indian newspaper. Read the original article here.

Face mask use in public indoor spaces for at least 2 weeks after achieving 70% vaccination coverage reduces hospitalisation and deaths, the study says.

New Delhi: With many countries ditching mask mandates, a modelling study published in The Lancet Public Health Tuesday said that continuing with masks in public indoor spaces and on public transportation for at least two weeks after achieving 70 per cent population-level vaccination coverage comes with economic and health benefits.

“Our study provides strong support for maintaining face mask use until and a short time after achieving various final vaccination coverage levels, given that maintaining face mask use can be not just cost-effective, but even cost saving,” said the paper by researchers from City University of New York, Baylor College of Medicine, US, among others.

“The emergence of the omicron variant and the prospect of future variants that might be more transmissible and reduce vaccine effectiveness only increases the value of face masks,” the researchers added.

Many countries around the world including the UK, Puerto Rico, Poland, Slovakia and Iceland have removed mask mandates. Many states in the US too have done so

India has decided to continue with the mask mandate even as the third wave is clearly on the wane in the country. Currently about 60 per cent Indians are fully vaccinated.

“Our findings emphasise that vaccination alone is not enough to control the pandemic and that overlapping layers of protective measures are needed to limit economic impacts and deaths. The newly released recommendations from CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) come at a time when many places in the USA are also beginning to consider easing mask requirements, and the choice to wear a mask will come down to individual decisions or decisions of private businesses,” senior author Bruce Y. Lee, of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, US, said on the study.

“Our model represents the US population, but the breadth and scale of the simulated scenarios mean the results are also applicable to other countries,” he added.

Masks will remain an important tool

The study emphasised that going forward, masks will remain an important non-pharmaceutical intervention even as newer and possibly more infectious Covid variants emerge and vaccine immunity wanes over the long run.

The authors developed a computational model representing the spread and impact of Covid-19 among more than 327 million people in the US. They simulated the use of maintaining face mask use before and after achieving different vaccination coverage levels under a variety of circumstances.

Scenarios varied the final population Covid-19 vaccination levels and the date these targets were reached, as well as levels of face mask use and the date face mask use ended.

“The results of this study re-emphasise that vaccination alone is not enough to control the pandemic and prevent deaths and suffering, as well as the importance of multilayered interventions. As has been described previously, each available intervention has different limitations,” the researchers wrote.

“Combining several layers of interventions can not only cover up these gaps but also further enhance each layer. Our study shows that face mask use can be cost-effective and, in many cases, cost saving, meaning that face mask use would pay for itself. This finding provides strong support for governments, third-party payers, and other organisations to provide face masks to the general public,” they said.

“Moreover, our study showed face mask use should not end as soon as certain amounts of vaccination coverage are achieved, even if these coverages exceed herd-immunity thresholds,” the researchers added.

Peter Hotez of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and co-author of the study, said: “Our findings offer some light at the end of the tunnel, suggesting that face mask use doesn’t have to continue forever, but that it remains an important tool to stop the spread of COVID-19 as we enter the next phase of the pandemic.”