In recent weeks, many locations in the U.S. have been lifting indoor face mask requirements, despite less than 70 percent of the population being fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and less than 45 percent having received the booster. A new study published March 8 in The Lancet Public Health by CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) Professor Bruce Y. Lee and colleagues suggests that consistently maintaining face mask use until, and even two to 10 weeks beyond, reaching various vaccination coverage thresholds (e.g., 70 to 90 percent of people fully vaccinated) could not only prevent a substantial number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths but also end up saving businesses, the health care system, insurance companies, taxpayers, and others money.

Results from the study’s computer simulation model of the entire U.S. suggest that when the reproductive number of the virus (e.g., how contagious and infectious the variant is) is five, corresponding to the delta variant, and 80 percent of the population is fully vaccinated by May 1, maintaining face mask use until then could save a total of $2.9 billion in direct medical costs, which would benefit the healthcare system, insurance companies, and anyone else paying for healthcare. It could save a total of $20.1 billion in productivity losses, which would benefit employers and taxpayers. If the same coverage (e.g., 80 percent) is reached by July 1, maintaining face masks use until then could save a total of $3.3 billion in direct medical costs and $23.4 billion in productivity losses. All of this suggests that it would be worthwhile for employers, governments, and insurance companies to invest into providing face masks and maintaining their use until two to 10 weeks after different target vaccination coverages have been reached.

The study was led by the Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research (PHICOR) team at CUNY SPH along with a team from the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. The team developed a computer simulation model of the entire U.S. that simulated the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus, subsequent outcomes of infection (e.g., symptoms, hospitalizations), vaccination, face mask use at the levels seen in the U.S. from March-July 2020, and the associated costs along the way.

“The messaging about face mask use has been inconsistent throughout the pandemic as there has been back and forth about the use of face masks,” says Dr. Lee, executive director of PHICOR.

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