Face masks are more protective against Covid-19 than handwashing

Face masks are the most protective against Covid-19 over handwashing or social distancing, a study of coronavirus riddled US warship Theodore Roosevelt suggests

  • Some 1,000 of the ship’s nearly 4,900-member crew tested positive in March 
  • The aircraft carrier has been studied by US officials to understand transmission
  • 25% difference in infection found between those who did and didn’t wear a mask
  • It follows months of debate about the effectiveness of face masks
  • The evidence in the early stages of the pandemic was unclear
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Face masks are the most protective against Covid-19 over handwashing or social distancing, study of coronavirus riddled US warship Theodore Roosevelt suggests. 

More than 1,000 of the ship’s nearly 4,900-member crew tested positive for Covid-19 during an outbreak in March, which saw one person die and the captain fired.

The aircraft carrier has been studied by US officials to get a better understanding of how the virus spreads.

They found a 25 per cent difference in the number of people infected between those who did and didn’t wear a mask. 

This compares with 15.3 per cent for social distancing and three per cent for handwashing, methods which have been considered the most crucial to stem the spread of the virus.  

It follows months of debate among scientists about whether face masks should be advised for the public due to weak evidence they are effective. 

Some experts say there is no harm in adding an extra layer of protection and have been pushing for stronger rules.  

The Government finally caved in to pressure and said from Monday, it is compulsory for Britons to wear a face covering on public transport.

Face masks are the most protective against Covid-19 over handwashing or social distancing, study of coronavirus riddled US warship Theodore Roosevelt suggests (pictured)

Researchers found a 25 per cent difference in the number of people infected between those who did and didn’t wear a mask. Pictured: Service members Jacob Torgerson, right, Donnie Bun, center, and Ryan McIntyre, left, on the ship, May 15

Wearing a protective facial covering was also found to be more effective than increased hand-washing. Pictured, navy seaman Steven Eckert wearing a mask, May 21

More than 1,000 of the ship’s nearly 4,900-member crew tested positive for Covid-19 during an outbreak in March. Pictured: Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Andrew Halford, from San Diego, holds the American flag on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier

The Roosevelt pulled into Guam on March 27, with a rapidly escalating number of sailors testing positive for the virus. It is not clear how the virus initially entered the ship.

One sailor from the ship died from the coronavirus and several others were hospitalised. 

Ten weeks later the ship has returned to sea and is conducting military operations in the Pacific region. 

In April, the US Navy and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated the outbreak involving a sample of 382 service members (27 per cent) on board who were mostly young, healthy adults.

WEARING FACE MASKS CAN REDUCE THE R RATE, STUDY FINDS 

The widespread use of face masks in Britain could keep the reproduction rate below one and stop a second wave of coronavirus, a study suggests.  

Modelling by the universities of Cambridge and Greenwich found if half of Brits wore masks it would prevent the crisis from spiralling back out of control.  

The researchers said mask-wearing by everyone was twice as effective at reducing R compared to only asking symptomatic people to use them.

But they warned current social distancing and lockdown measures were not suffice to stifle the spread of Covid-19. 

The researchers estimated the transmission rate based on levels of compliance from the public.

If 50 per cent or more of the population wore them then the R will remain below one as long as social distancing stayed in place and lockdown was eased very gradually.

If every single Briton wore masks in public then the scientists estimate it could keep R stable without any draconian curbs.

But the researchers admit it would be highly unlikely that everyone would adhere to the rules.  

Lead author Dr Richard Stutt, from Cambridge University, said: ‘Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public.’

The UK’s R rate is thought to be between 0.7 and 0.9 — but some experts estimate it has crept above 1 in the North West and South West of England.  

The R represents the average number of people an infected patient passes the virus to and keeping it below 1 is crucial to prevent a second surge of the virus.  

The CDC has also been conducting research on the USS Kidd ship – the second US warship to have a coronavirus outbreak.

The study found the outbreak occurred due to widespread transmission between members, who had either mild symptoms or none at all. 

‘Those who reported taking preventive measures had a lower infection rate than did those who did not report taking these measures’, the study found.

The greatest protection was found among those who wore masks.

Only 55.8 per cent of those who did wear a mask became infected compared to 80.8 per cent of those who did not – a difference of 25 per cent. 

Physical distancing reduced the infection by 15.3 per cent, with 54.7 per cent of those practising it becoming infected compared to 70 per cent of those who did not.

Wearing a protective facial covering was also found to be more effective than increased hand-washing.

Around 62 per cent of those who reported regularly washing their hands becoming infected compared to around 65 per cent of those who didn’t regularly wash their hands – a difference of three per cent. 

The authors of the study stated: ‘This report improves the understanding of COVID-19 in the U.S. military and among young adults in congregate settings and reinforces the importance of preventive measures to lower risk for infection in similar environments.’

It comes after months of fierce debate over whether to recommend the public to wear face masks amid a shortage of surgical face masks for health workers.

In May, the Government said people in the UK should ‘wear a face covering [home made, with cloth or material] in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible’.

The guidance had already been issued to Americans by the CDC in mid-April. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says widespread use is not necessary – only medics and those who are high-risk or who have symptoms should wear them. 

It has also raised concerns there could be a shortage of masks for medical workers if they are bought by the general public. 

Scientific papers submitted to the Government’s SAGE committee early in the pandemic revealed British scientists didn’t have much argument for face masks.   

The papers up until mid-April said that there was little or mixed evidence in favour of wearing face masks, and much of the research was not relevant to British society.  

But now, it is mandatory to wear a face mask on public transport in Britain. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who made the announcement on June 4, said:  ‘With more people using transport the evidence suggests wearing face coverings offers some – albeit limited – protection against the spread for the virus.’

The UK Government is not convinced they are helpful in other scenarios and believe they may do more harm than good by giving people the false confidence to take unnecessary risks. 

However, a study last week found the widespread use of face masks in Britain could keep the reproduction rate below one and stop a second wave of coronavirus.

Lead author Dr Richard Stutt, from Cambridge University, said: ‘Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public.’ 

Professor John Colvin, co-author from the University of Greenwich, said: ‘There is a common perception that wearing a face mask means you consider others a danger.

‘In fact, by wearing a mask you are primarily protecting others from yourself. Cultural and even political issues may stop people wearing face masks, so the message needs to be clear, “My mask protects you, your mask protects me”.

‘In the UK, the approach to face masks should go further than just public transport. The most effective way to restart daily life is to encourage everyone to wear some kind of mask whenever they are in public.’

Officials last week released a Blue Peter-style guide on how to make one from an old T-shirt

As well as looking at the strength of protection measures, the CDC study on the Roosevelt also found nearly two thirds had positive antibody test results, which indicates they had fought the virus. 

Previously all 4,800 sailors on the Roosevelt aircraft carrier were tested for the coronavirus previously, and about a quarter tested positive. 

But the serology testing – to look for the presence of specific antibodies in the blood – suggests far more were infected that had gone unnoticed.  

Similar tests in Italy and elsewhere have indicated the presence of antibodies in people who did not test positive previously, giving a more accurate sense of the spread of the virus.

However, the serology test could also show that people who tested positive for coronavirus do not carry antibodies later, potentially raising questions about their immunity to the virus.

While the results could indicate a far higher presence of the coronavirus, one of the Navy officials said that may not be the case because of the way the study was carried out.

‘The outbreak investigation did not encompass the entire crew, and the results of this study cannot be generalized to the entire crew,’ the official said.

The spread of the virus on the ship put into motion a series of events that led to the firing of the ship’s captain, Brett Crozier.

Mr Crozier felt compelled to write to several other commanders pleading for more urgent Navy action to protect his crew of nearly 5,000.

Mr Crozier was then relieved of command for what the Navy’s top civilian official at the time, Thomas Modly, called poor judgment. 

Mr Modly resigned several days later, and the Navy is now seeking higher-level approval to reverse his move and restore Mr Crozier to command.   

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