Requiring Iowans to wear face masks in public could greatly decrease COVID-19 infections and deaths, according to new UI research

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The likely number of cases of COVID-19 and deaths due to the virus could be decreased by thousands in the next few months if Iowans were required to wear personal protective equipment in public, even if social distancing is relaxed, a modeling tool created by University of Iowa faculty and graduate students shows.

The online tool uses statistical modeling to understand the effects of “nonpharmaceutical interventions on COVID-19 in Iowa.” The two interventions considered in the model are:

• self-quarantining/social distancing

• applying personal protective equipment universally (all citizens required/encouraged to wear PPE)

This tool is not part of the contract between the Iowa Department of Public Health and the College of Public Health that was signed in April.

A month after COVID-19 was confirmed in Iowa, IDPH agreed to provide the UI College of Public Health with the data needed to develop models that would predict the spread and severity of the virus in Iowa, as well as the likely number of deaths in the state. That agreement gives IDPH the power to control what the public gets to know about those models.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has largely dismissed and ignored reports from UI researchers during the last few months, including warnings that a second wave of infections is likely if restrictions were lifted too soon. Reynolds said she was relying on “real-time data” to make her decisions about relaxing restrictions and reopening the state.

The UI College of Public Health COVID-19 response team created this new tool as a “free public service” for policymakers, business leaders and the general public. Its website features a five-minute video tutorial on how to use the tool and adjust various factors.

After clicking on the “Epi Curve” tab on the website, users are brought to the modeling page and have access to estimates for the current trajectory of infections, deaths and health care resources.

The “current trajectory” shows the number of cases per day gradually decreasing over the next four months. The modeling shows estimates from late February to late October, with a line on the graph showing the current date.

By Oct. 28, the model estimates there will be more than 44,000 cases of the virus in Iowa.

The following graphs show what the University of Iowa College of Public Health faculty and graduate students involved with the modeling tool estimate the daily and cumulative number of infections to be. — website screen grab

A similar trend can be seen for deaths. The estimated number of daily deaths slowly decreases through the coming months, although it does not reach zero.

The model estimates that by Oct. 28, a total of 1,535 Iowans will have died from the virus.

Estimated daily and cumulative deaths through Oct. 28, 2020 — website screengrab

Iowa is not among the states requiring residents to wear masks or other face coverings in public. Reynolds has said that she is giving Iowans the ability to choose when it comes to the actions they take relating to the pandemic and that she trusts Iowans to do the right thing.

If the state were to require all residents to wear personal protective equipment, such as masks or face shields, daily infections and cumulative infections would decrease, according to the modeling tool, and the sooner such action is taken, the larger the decrease would be. Deaths would also decrease. (This is using the assumption that compliance rates are between 30 percent and 90 percent, according to information on the “about” page.)

The faculty and students behind the model believe that face shields are a more “viable option for being universally applied” rather than face masks.

“Face shields are durable, easily cleaned, prevent the wearer from touching their face, and most importantly, significantly reduce the amount of inhalation exposure to viruses,” the researchers state on the website.

The researchers also have information on the website about what a second peak might look like, which they believe will be “more severe than the first.”

In contrast to early 2020, by the time the second peak begins in late 2020, COVID-19 will have dispersed thoroughly throughout the population while only having infected less than 5% of the population. It will thus be in a prime position to have a maximal impact as the high HCoV season begins, thereby leading to a second peak which will be more severe than the first.

Since this is the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers said they do not have direct evidence either for or against “seasonal patterns of COVID-19.”

“We expect that the next few months will shed light on whether COVID-19 is highly seasonal. If this turns out to be the case, it will be imperative to make preparations well in advance of the second peak for minimizing the impact of COVID-19, and under such a situation we specifically strongly recommend that society prepares for universal face shields and social distancing come late fall 2020.”

On Monday, IDPH reported that a total of 24,041 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s an increase of 875 confirmed cases since the same time on Friday. The department also reported on Monday the state’s death toll from the virus stood at 652, meaning another 11 deaths had been reported since 10 a.m. on Friday.

The UI faculty and graduate students involved with creating the modeling tool believe that face shields are a more “viable option for being universally applied” rather than face masks. — photo courtesy of UI Health