PROVO — After countless hours buried in research not necessarily related to their specialty, a group of researchers from Brigham Young University feel like they have made sense for the wearing masks or cloth face coverings to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of environmental science at BYU, was one of four researchers at the university who pored through 130 scientific papers about the costs, benefits and disadvantages of mask-wearing in response to the global pandemic.
If the group — which also includes Mitchell Greenhalgh and Isaac St. Clair from environmental science, and Jonas Bush from genetics, genomics and biotechnology — doesn’t sound like one that might typically deliver a cost-benefit analysis of mask-wearing, it’s because it isn’t.
"My research team and I basically suspended our other efforts and worked night and day," Abbott told KSL NewsRadio on Monday afternoon, adding that the group responded to several inquiries on Facebook and in the Utah County community by digging into previously published scientific papers, devoid of political arguments.
The research analysis wasn't driven by the university or a department, or even a need for political discourse. Just pure scientific inquisition, Abbott said.
“Our whole purpose for making this report was to bring the pure science,” Abbott told KSL TV. “We’re able to now say with a high level of confidence: ‘masks protect people from COVID-19.’”
All masks, including something as simple as a cloth face covering, have been shown to slow the spread of viruses like COVID-19 — which spread via tiny air droplets when speaking, coughing, sneezing and even breathing — by as much as 90%, the research confirmed.
What’s more, there is no evidence that masks adversely affect the majority of the population, Abbott added, including limiting oxygen intake, increasing carbon dioxide intact or inhaling more pathogens.
"We found zero evidence in the scientific literature, after reading 130 papers, that masks were a risk for healthy individuals," the BYU professor said. "For all healthy individuals — children, adults, and elderly — it’s really safe."
Still, masks aren’t particularly effective at protecting the wearer — but those around them who may otherwise be infected, even unknowingly.
“We need to keep politics from stopping us from doing what we need to get us back to our normal life,” Abbott said. “We can conquer this if we work together.”
Some adverse effects do occur to a small percentage of the population, such as those who struggle with compromised respiratory systems like COPD and end-stage renal disease, those with severe disabilities that make removing or adjusting a mask extremely difficult, and children under 2 years in age, Abbott added.
But even for that small section of the population, those who don’t wear masks correctly may contribute to and benefit from the greater mask-wearing society — if everyone else is "masked up."
"Even if not everyone is wearing their mask correctly or anything else happens, it still can have a really positive impact," Abbott said. "Even though cases are increasing rapidly, areas that include masks have lower mortality rates.
"The problem is, of course, it only works when the majority of people are wearing masks."
Abbott added that even when infection occurs in areas with frequent mask usage, mortality rates are relatively low. There appears to be a correlation between the volume of infected air droplets consumed while spreading the virus and the severity of the symptoms: the fewer droplets, the less severe the symptoms, and less likely to lead to significant cases or even death.
In countries where at least 80% of the population was wearing a mask, such as most Asian countries, the rate of spread was found to decrease dramatically. Those countries had COVID-19 infection rates as low as half that of similar countries where mask-wearing was not as culturally complicit.
Scientists at Oxford University who began human trials on a potential vaccine for the virus back in April have recently shown promising results, too, producing a dual immune response in test cases between age 15 and 55 that lasted at least two months after they received the immunization.
That’s only part of the response of the worldwide scientific community’s Herculean effort to fast-track a vaccine as soon as possible. And before a vaccine is introduced to the masses — White House officials believe that may not be available until at least Christmas, or early next year — the best response still likely includes a mask.
Of course, masks and face coverings also don’t work by themselves; they should be used in addition to other precautions to prevent spread, such as social distancing when appropriate and frequent sanitization of hands and high-touch surface areas.
But the evidence is clear, Abbott said: if you want society to return to normal — or a "new normal," as state and national political leaders have said — then wear a mask.
"It looks like masks could be our safest and fastest bridge back to normal," Abbott said. "Countries and regions that have implemented masking have reduced the spread of COVID drastically."
Contributing: Lee Lonsberry, KSL Newsradio; Matt Rascon, KSL TV