Study finds risks to ending masks

Staff members with nutrition services at High Point Medical Center are shown wearing masks as they exit the facility near the patient entrance last June. Medical researchers are debating how many more COVID-19 cases and mortality will occur through the end of this year with the rollback of mask requirements and social distancing rules.

HIGH POINT — A recent study by medical researchers offers a look at what may become the sobering consequences of doing away with mask requirements, social distancing mandates and other COVID-19 emergency orders.

The researchers performed scientific modeling to compare what could be expected in North Carolina because of the retreat from coronavirus pandemic protections put in place in March 2020 with what might happen if they were continued. By Dec. 21, there would be at least 1,150 fewer deaths and 430,000 fewer infections if mask and socially distancing protocols remained in place, the researchers projected.

The study was conducted by researchers associated with North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, East Carolina University and Georgia Tech University.

The conclusions of the study re-emphasize the importance of people getting vaccinated, said Jordan Smith, assistant professor of clinical sciences at High Point University. The higher the vaccination rate, the more likely that new COVID-19 cases — and, more importantly, greater numbers of severe illnesses and deaths — can be avoided.

“What I’m taking from the modeling in this study is the importance of continuing to vaccinate people as quickly as possible,” Smith told The High Point Enterprise. “I don’t see restrictions coming back in a big way. So if we make good strides with vaccinations, we can narrow the gap that was put out in this study.”

As of Monday, 51% of state residents 18 or older were fully vaccinated, and another 3% were partially vaccinated, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, 54% of Americans at least 18 years old are fully vaccinated, and another 10% are partially vaccinated, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The risk of COVID-19 infection in the wake of the rollback of public health restrictions may take on a seasonal component, said Michael DeWitt, senior data scientist with Cone Health.

When autumn arrives, there’s a risk of some level of COVID-19 resurgence that could extend into the winter as more people are indoors for longer periods, DeWitt said. The seasonal aspect of the pandemic can shift the risk of pulling back restrictions such as wearing masks and limiting the size of crowds.

“Now we are outdoors, it’s warm,” DeWitt told The Enterprise. “We are less likely to be in environments where we knew COVID would spread. The weather will change, which means it’s important we don’t let our foot off the gas when it comes to vaccinations.”

For decades, society has made the trade-off between deaths and public health safety restrictions when it came to the annual flu season, though the flu restrictions typically have been limited to hospitals and medical clinics.

“But with COVID, it doesn’t have to be a complete reversion with everybody locked in their house,” Smith said.

The comparison of the mortality during a typical flu season compared with the threat of the coronavirus pandemic points out how much more severe a challenge society faces now, Smith told The Enterprise.

“This might start to feel and act like seasonal flu in terms of what we do to contain it versus what we allow to happen in order to live life normally,” he said. “While it seems we are heading that way eventually, the amount of deaths ... in the reported COVID-19 model study — 1,000 deaths — is more than the deaths we see in North Carolina due to flu annually. We may see a few hundred flu-related deaths every year, but it’s still a much smaller burden than COVID-19 is currently at.”

DeWitt said the way to avoid greater numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths isn’t a mystery.

“Vaccinations are incredibly important,” he said. “It’s our path to normality. For every person we’ve vaccinated, we’ve severely reduced their risk of getting a severe disease. You’re not only doing it for yourself, but for your community.”

pjohnson@hpenews.com | 336-888-3528 | @HPEpaul

pjohnson@hpenews.com | 336-888-3528 | @HPEpaul