The number of coronavirus deaths in the US may reach half a million by the end of February – but universal mask wearing could save nearly 130,000 lives, according to a study.
Researchers from the University of Washington looked at non-pharmaceutical ways of minimising COVID-19 fatalities.
Their analysis examined how the disease has spread in different states, and projected the effects of varying levels of social distancing and mask use from mid-September 2020 until the end of February 2021.
The risk from coronavirus and the strain on hospitals will stay high through the winter under all scenarios, they said, especially in populous states such as Florida and California.
But if 95% of people were to wear a mask in public, researchers say 129,574 lives could be saved – or 96,000 lives if 85% of people take it up.
More than 223,000 coronavirus-linked deaths have so far been recorded in the US since the crisis began, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“Our findings indicate that universal mask use, a relatively affordable and low-impact intervention, has the potential to serve as a priority life-saving strategy in all US states,” says the research – published in the Nature Medicine journal.
The authors quote one recent study that suggested only 49% of Americans said they “always” wear a mask in public.
However, citing a New York Times article, they add that 95% mask use had already been observed in some neighbourhoods of the city.
Donald Trump famously shunned the use of masks earlier in the pandemic, but eventually began wearing one.
His election rival, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, has stressed the importance of face coverings, insisting that “masks matter” and “save lives”.
Clashing with Mr Trump during the final presidential debate on Thursday, Mr Biden waved his black face mask as a prop and stated: “If we just wore masks, we could save 100,000 lives.”
In the UK, face coverings were made mandatory in many public settings after initial conflicting reports over their effectiveness.