New COVID-19 study: Wearing Face Masks and Social Distancing Actually Work

In keeping with our objective to provide evidence-based recommendations to our network and contributors, the AO Alliance will publish short stories reflecting what to do to stay safe and healthy in these times of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the first one.

The best practices for controlling an infectious disease like COVID-19 aren’t easy to follow ”“ keeping one meter apart from others, wearing face masks in public, and, if you’re a healthcare worker, wearing face shields to protect your eyes as well.

But in a study published on June 1, 2020 in The Lancet, researchers provide the strongest evidence yet that these practices do indeed lower the risk of spreading the virus.
An international group of scientists analyzed 172 studies conducted in 16 countries that looked at the connection between social distancing, wearing masks, wearing eye protection, and the risk of transmitting the virus. The studies were observational, meaning that they tracked infection rates among people who practiced any of the behaviours. Of the 172 studies, 44 (involving more than 25,000 participants) also included comparisons between those who followed the behaviors and those who did not.

When it comes to social distancing, the analysis showed that, on average, the risk of getting infected when remaining one meter from an infected person was about 3%, while staying less than one meter apart upped the risk to 13%. The further people stand away from one another, the lower their risk. In fact, the risk drops by half for every additional meter of distancing up to 3 meters.

The data also supported the benefits of eye shields for healthcare workers. The risk of infection among people who wore glasses, goggles or other face shields was 6% compared to 16% among those not wearing such protection.

These findings support the current public health advice to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. As well, wearing even a self-made mask is better than not wearing anything at all. But what remains unclear, however, is the ideal distancing in denser settings and closer quarters.