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One thing you can do to reduce coronavirus spread without wearing a mask

Published Jul 27th, 2020 2:05PM EDT

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  • Coronavirus tips for reducing the spread of COVID-19 remain unchanged. Clean hands, social distancing, and face masks can reduce everyone’s risk of transmission.
  • A new study shows that social distancing can reduce the spread of the virus even more efficiently than we thought.
  • Cutting visits to non-essential businesses by 50% can reduce virus transmission by 45%, the study said.

The number of new COVID-19 cases continues to climb at alarming rates, with almost 350,000 cases having been reported worldwide in a single day alone. Nearly 16.48 million infections have been confirmed to date, as of Monday morning. Of those, more than 10 million have recovered and over 655,000 people died. We’re currently at what appears to be the peak of the pandemic so far, though things could always get even worse — especially in the US where a mind-boggling lack of leadership has led to the worst coronavirus response of any nation around the globe. Some people have grown tired of the health crisis and have let their guard down. Others don’t accept the existence of the illness or don’t care that they can get the virus and infect their loved ones. And then there are anti-maskers, who refuse to use the one tool that can reduce the spread of any infectious microorganism, novel coronavirus included.

A brand new study shows that there is in fact one thing you can do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 that doesn’t involve always having to wear a face mask. That’s social distancing, of course, a measure that’s been advised from the start of the pandemic, but one that’s currently being ignored by many people who have tried to return to normal.

Studies so far showed that face masks can prevent the spread of droplets and aerosols while speaking, coughing, and sneezing. Similarly, we know that handwashing kills the virus if it’s done correctly — you should wash your hands frequently, and spend at least 20 seconds doing it.

A team of researchers observed 211 counties in 46 US states totaling a population of up to 179 million people. The researchers determined that aside from masks, social distancing is the one thing that can reduce the coronavirus’s reproduction number (Rt) significantly. The researchers observed these cohorts form February 25th through April 23rd, taking into account population density and temperature changes.

Authorities imposed lockdown measures during the period advising people to avoid crowded places and to spend as much time at home as possible. Face mask use was limited at the time, with the US government encouraging mask use in public areas only in early April. The study shows that “social distancing, lower population density, and temperate weather were associated with a decreased Rt for SARS-CoV-2 in counties across the United States.”

“Our analysis indicates that of these 3 factors, implementation of social distancing has been the most significant in reducing transmission,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in JAMA. Cutting visits to non-essential businesses in half would reduce transmission by 45%. Better yet, decreasing activities by 75% would reduce transmission by 60%.

Scientists determined that regions with the highest population densities experienced increased transmission, which leads to more cases, a higher percentage of severe cases, and more deaths. They also noted that the spread decreased as the weather was warming up, but that may be a false conclusion considering the period chosen for the study. Some states were still in lockdown as the weather was getting hotter, and that may have been the main factor for limiting the spread of COVID-19. The study ended in late April, failing to capture the resurgence of the virus during the early summer in several southern states.

“While we have improved our messaging around the use of masks, masks need to be combined with significant physical distancing, including limiting gathering sizes and avoided crowded locations, for communities to be successful in controlling transmission,” study co-author Dr. David M. Rubin told UPI. “There is a great need for the public to come to terms with the need to incorporate these inconveniences — namely masking and avoiding crowds — into their lives in a way that best prevents spread.”

Staying indoors at home as much as possible is the only thing you can do to keep yourself and your family safe that doesn’t involve wearing a mask. If you have to go out for work or supplies, using a face mask in public places remains crucial. You should also keep washing hands often and cleaning commonly used surfaces.

As with any other coronavirus studies, this research could benefit from more data, especially considering what happened in most US states once restrictions were lifted. But we don’t need statistical data to tell us that avoiding other people will reduce the spread of COVID-19 or any other infectious disease.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.