We already know how to beat COVID-19 in three easy steps

Mask up, lather up, and keep your distance.
person putting soap on hands
Washing your hands is still an important prevention technique, even while wearing a mask Christine Sandu/Unsplash

All you hear about right now is masks, but in all the debate we may have temporarily forgotten about some other important ways of fighting off the coronavirus. New research from scientists in the Netherlands found that combining masks with hand washing and social distancing is crucial for limiting the spread of COVID-19. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Medicine this week. The researchers used computer modeling to examine how effective these protective measures are when used alone and when paired with government-mandated social distancing. They found that self-imposed actions like wearing a mask can have a major impact on preventing transmission—especially when most people in a community use them in tandem.

“If nearly all [the] population adopted self-imposed measures we would not have to confront the possibility of secondary lockdowns as well as the possibility that we may find our medical systems overwhelmed during the peaks of epidemics,” Ganna Rozhnova, an infectious disease modeler at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands and coauthor of the new findings, said in an email to Popular Science. “Overall, it appears to be a relatively cheap solution that would not disrupt economical and societal fabric as much as a lockdown does.”

Rozhnova and her colleagues found that government-imposed social distancing measures—such as closing businesses, canceling events, and stay-at-home orders—can delay the peak of a COVID-19 epidemic by up to seven months on their own. When people choose to wear masks, wash their hands thoroughly, and continue to social distance after these restrictions are lifted, the peak of the epidemic can be delayed for several additional months and fewer people will become infected in total.

The more swiftly people become aware of the threat posed by COVID-19 and adopt these measures, the greater their impact. The researchers estimated that in a country where 90 percent of the population uses multiple actions such as hand washing and social distancing—even if they aren’t perfectly executed—a large outbreak of COVID-19 or a second wave of the epidemic could be averted.

There are a number of variables that Rozhnova and her team didn’t account for that could affect the accuracy of these predictions in the real world; people will vary in how much time they spend around others, and it’s not yet known whether people who recover from COVID-19 can become reinfected.

Still, the model that Rozhnova and her team developed “is very sophisticated,” says Brandye Nobiling, director of the Community Health Program at Salisbury University in Maryland, who was not involved with the research. The findings fit well with other research that suggests that these actions can play a huge role in limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“The preventative measures are worth it and the science is backing that up,” Nobiling says. “So why not do as much as we can do based on what we know about the efficacy of these measures?”

Even taken alone, these protective measures may prevent people from spreading COVID-19. On July 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report describing how two hair stylists in Missouri tested positive for COVID-19 and served 139 clients before taking leave from work. None of the clients developed symptoms and the 67 clients who were later tested for COVID-19 all received negative results. “Adherence to the community’s and company’s face-covering policy likely mitigated spread of SARS-CoV-2,” the researchers concluded.

However, the new findings point to the importance of using not just one but multiple safety precautions—even when businesses reopen and the initial waves of infection begin to ebb (though in the U.S., crucially, infections have not waned). “Individual behavior may be essential for changing the course of this epidemic, whereas temporary government-imposed interventions we experienced in the past months may have a high risk of an epidemic resurgence when lifted,” Rozhnova said.