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Social distancing and wearing a mask can help stop the spread of COVID-19. Getty Images
  • While a vaccine may be crucial to fully stopping the virus, a new study finds simple steps may drastically help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
  • Handwashing, physical distancing, and wearing a mask may drastically help reduce or stop the spread of the virus.
  • For these steps to work, at least 50 percent of the population needs to adopt them.

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As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the United States, state and local officials are pushing people to take steps that may help slow the spread of the virus.

While a vaccine may be crucial to fully stopping the virus, a new study finds simple steps may drastically help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The new study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found that three steps may help stop or slow the COVID-19 outbreak without having a vaccine.

The three steps are simple: handwashing, physical distancing, and wearing a mask.

The study authors found that even without a vaccine, if enough people take steps to safeguard their health and decrease transmission risk, these steps can drastically help reduce the spread of disease.

The study noted that the measures need to be adopted by more than 50 percent of the population to help prevent a larger epidemic.

“If a population quickly becomes aware of the coronavirus and effective prevention measures, self-imposed prevention measures can both diminish and postpone the peak number of cases,” the authors said.

The study researchers developed a computational model of the spread of COVID-19 based on known information about the epidemiology of the disease. The model was used to study the predicted effect of prevention measures.

“Combining self-imposed prevention measures — particularly if adopted quickly and by a large portion of the population — with government-imposed social distancing, has the potential to both delay and shrink the peak of the epidemic,” the study authors wrote.

These self-imposed prevention measures, including frequent handwashing, mask wearing, and physical distancing, are all proven to be effective on their own — but when combined are the ultimate triple threat against COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical distancing (aka social distancing) can provide crucial time to increase healthcare capacity.

The CDC used a mathematical model to investigate the effectiveness of physical distancing. The results showed that distancing interventions that began earlier in the epidemic do, in fact, flatten the epidemic curve.

The CDC also confirms that washing hands can keep people healthy and prevent the spread of respiratory infections.

Germs spread from other people or surfaces when you touch your face with unwashed hands, touch contaminated surfaces, or blow your nose, cough, or sneeze into your hands and then make contact with other people or objects.

Similarly, the Mayo Clinic confirms that face masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets that are produced when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Masks, whether surgical or cloth, trap droplets and help stop the spread of transmission.

An earlier study from April 2020 shows that universal masking is emerging as one of the key non-pharmaceutical interventions for containing or slowing the spread of the virus.

The study showed universal masking (with at least 80 percent of the population participating) has a significant impact in slowing the spread, and is most effective when universal masking is adopted early on.

“This is something we’ve all been saying, and we’ve heard from public health experts from the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Matthew G. Heinz, a hospitalist and internist based in Tucson.

“In states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida — all the states that are spiraling with rampant community spread — [these three measures] have to be enforced. It has to be something that is mandated,” he said. “No one should be going anywhere right now. That’s what we need to do for at least a month to get things under control.”

Countries like New Zealand, for example, which implemented self-isolation measures almost immediately, have managed to crush the curve, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Three days after the WHO declared a public health emergency, New Zealand began implementing prevention measures.

In contrast, the United States recently surpassed 70,000 new cases in a single day, which comes in the wake of the country’s more densely populated states continuing to reopen and the refusal of large portions of the population to wear masks.

Dr. Scott Weisenberg, a clinical associate professor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health in New York City, explained that taking small steps like wearing a mask and avoiding contact with people outside your household can have a huge impact.

“The highest risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is with prolonged close contact, particularly indoors,” said Weisenberg. “People who do not yet have symptoms can spread the virus to others.”

“Social distancing, universal mask wearing when around others, and handwashing in combination are the most effective ways to reduce the risk of getting infected for an individual, and to control the spread of the virus for a community,” he said.

Heinz pointed out that these measures may be difficult to adopt but that they are temporary.

“No one likes a lockdown,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everyone, but we have to do this, otherwise there is no hope or prayer of kids going back to school until January at this point. But if we work hard there’s a slight chance we can do it on a delayed basis. [These measures] can’t be optional. There must be statewide rules.”