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  • Face masks are effective against COVID-19, new study finds. (Photo: Bratislava SG region)

    Mandatory wearing of masks and practicing social distancing with masks reduced infection rates by 93.5 percent and 98.1 percent, respectively, according to one of the most comprehensive studies yet on the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The study has received little to no publicity domestically because it was conducted in South Korea.

    A bevy of agencies, including the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea, supported the research.

    The results were reported in Science Advances, a trade journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    The South Korean study provides the most conclusive evidence yet, that masks are highly effective in curbing the spread of the virus.

    South Korea has imposed “several intensive policies,” requiring masks and social distancing in public places, which have been widely followed.

    As such, the study analyzed and measured the impact of the policies by calculating the degree of infection exposure on public mass transit, which is widely used in Seoul, a city of 10 million.

    Generally, COVID-19 is spread mainly through close contact between individuals in enclosed spaces like buses, subways and railways.

    The scope of this study examined the formation of cough aerosols and their blockage by a mask.

    It found that mandatory mask-wearing resulted in COVID-19–preventive effects similar to those resulting from maintaining two meters (six and a half feet) of physical distancing.

    “During peak hours, the number of exposed individuals decreased by 64.4%, when social distancing policies were implemented, 93.5%, when wearing of masks is mandatory, and 98.1%, when both polices are implemented,” the study found.

    Because of widespread use of masks and other safeguards like social distancing, South Korea, a nation of 25 million, has recorded 399,591 infections and 3,137 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

    In contrast, Texas, a state with 27.4 million population but no mask or social distancing mandates, has recorded 4.3 million COVID infections and 71,489 deaths.

    Prior to the Korean study, other limited mask studies produced mixed results.

    But in a January article reviewing the latest studies, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences noted that science is advancing rapidly around wearing masks by the public to impede COVID-19 transmission. 

    Safe traveling in public transport amid COVID-19.

    “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts,” it noted.

    “Public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high.”

    The authors concluded by recommending “that public officials and governments strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulation.”

    Yet, masks and mask mandates have become a political hot button in the United States, largely because of rampant misinformation on right-wing news outlets and opposition from state and federal Republican lawmakers.

    Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson, a leading purveyor of COVID-misinformation, declared in October a year ago that mask wearing was a growing “cult… with no evidence they work.”

    Several U.S. states with Republican governors have sought to prevent local governments and school districts from mandating masks, in a highly politicized battle over COVID-19 precautions.

    In contrast, the Biden administration earlier this month, issued sweeping new rules affecting companies with 100 or more employees.

    Specifically, companies must ensure workers are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or that they test negative for the coronavirus at least once a week.

    What’s more, effective Dec. 6, unvaccinated workers must also wear face coverings while on the job.

    Some 17 million health care workers were also ordered to get vaccinations by Jan. 4, without a testing option. The rule covers an estimated 76,000 health care facilities that receive federal funding from Medicare or Medicaid.

    In September, Biden ordered federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated, with no testing option.

    Federal workers have until Nov. 22 to get the shots, while federal contractors have until Jan. 4.

    The administration also issued a mask mandate on federal property, as part of the president’s “100 Day Masking Challenge.”

    The goal is to flatten the COVID-19 curve of infections and deaths.

    The virus has killed more than 745,000 Americans, since the pandemic began, and health authorities are warning of another wave of infections and deaths this winter.

    The pandemic spiked and receded once only to spike again with the advent of the Delta variant. After trending down toward the end of summer, the number of cases is on the rise again.

    Several state, principally those with Republican governors who are fighting vaccine and masks mandates are becoming COVID hotspots again. They typically have low vaccination rates and few or no mask requirements.

    Florida, for example, is recording more Covid-19 cases than any other state, while hospitalizations in some areas increase at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic.

    The state, which accounts for one-in-five new infections, reported 73,181 cases over the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Florida had 341 cases per 100,000 people over the past week, second only to Louisiana.

    The weekly total of new cases reported by Florida jumped more than fourfold between July 1 and July 22, reaching its highest point since mid-January, according to The Wall Street Journal.