AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A study by researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center concludes communities where face mask orders were implemented early helped slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Comparing state mask mandates, the UNTHSC researchers found “the states with an early mask mandate have been able to protect against the June surge.”
Texas counties seem to be following that pattern, according to Dr. Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics & epidemiology at UNTHSC, who led the study.
“I can clearly see an association in terms of the mandate being placed and the number of new cases being stabilizing,” Nandy said.
Nandy found in a few North Texas counties, daily new cases, emergency room visits and hospitalizations went down after local mask orders went into effect, prior to Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate.
“It probably is a combination of different things,” Nandy said. “The mask is one part of it, then the other part is maintaining social distancing guidelines more vigilantly and the other part, also— for which we have hard data— is the is people’s mobility.”
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin use daily COVID-19 data to make predictions about potential infections and deaths.
“The amount that people are interacting with each other today is highly predictive of the number of cases and hospitalizations — we’ll see in the next week or two,” Dr. Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said.
Nandy started his research after he was approached by the City of Fort Worth and the Tarrant County Health Department.
“They approached our university for helping them with many different aspects in fighting the disease,” he said. “There are direct clinical aspects as well in terms of testing, contact tracing, and also this analyzing and monitoring the data.”
Gov. Abbott has promoted Nandy’s study as proof wearing face masks helps slow the spread, therefore allowing him to keep the state’s economy open.
“A study came out showing that in areas where people do adopt the practice of wearing a face mask, it does reduce the transmission, it does reduce the people who are contracting COVID-19,” Abbott said in a TV interview this week, specifically referencing UNT in other TV appearances.
One of his top medical advisers is Dr. John Zerwas, the retired state lawmaker who now serves as Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs for the University of Texas System. Abbott tapped him to lead the new Supply Chain strike force, where he focuses on hospital capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also serves on the Open Texas strike force.
“Utilizing a face mask is clearly beneficial,” Zerwas said. “And it’s nice to see that maybe there’s some formal studies that document that.”
“Wearing a face mask is something that’s going to help prevent the the spread of the disease,” he said.
“I think we’re having, you know, pretty effective compliance with face masks, especially with the governor’s directive back pre-Fourth of July,” Zerwas explained, though it’s unclear whether any research is underway to track compliance.
Nandy said the next piece of data he wants to focus on is compliance of mask-wearing orders, which did not factor into this study. He said that data is not currently available.