February 1, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 85—Masks, and travel bans

Wearing a mask has become a part of most Americans’ daily lives. But as more contagious coronavirus variants emerge, health experts say it’s probably a good idea to start doubling up on your face masks. Tom Duszynski, an epidemiologist from the School of Public Health at IU, says the idea is that the more barriers you can put between yourself and the virus, the better off you’re going to be. While N95 face masks are the gold standard in terms of protection, they can be hard to find. So, experts suggest adding to your cloth or surgical mask. When doubling up, experts say you want masks that can both filter the air we breathe in and limit how many respiratory secretions we shoot out. The mask with the greatest filtering capabilities should go on first, like the N95, KN95, or a well-fitted surgical mask, and make sure that mask is tightly sealed against your face. Data suggests certain cloth masks might not be as protective as we once hoped, so experts suggest ditching bandanas and neck gaiters and using a multilayer cloth mask or another surgical mask. Duszynski says the more layers you have covering your nose and mouth means less virus you’re able to disseminate into the population. And the more layers you have between you and the environment, the fewer viral particles are going to get into your system, he says. Duszynski recommends double-masking when going indoors where other people will be. Your masks should be comfortable, he says, and he advises against vented masks, even with a second mask on, because they have an opening the virus can travel through and the vent concentrates the amount of virus coming out, which can put others at risk. When in doubt, Duszynski says, go for masks that fit snugly against the side of your face and completely cover your nose and mouth. Double-masking, he says, is just another way you can not only guard yourself but help protect somebody else.

In addition to wearing masks, people throughout the world have also become used to travel bans due to the pandemic. But do travel bans work? IU professors Jeff Prince and Daniel Simon recently studied data to determine how much impact international travel actually had on COVID-19 cases and deaths once the virus was in the U.S. They learned that if a government is going to impose a travel ban, it should act quickly because the virus spreads fast. Second, narrow travel bans that target individual countries should not be imposed because the virus spreads so quickly. You have to assume the virus has already spread to other countries. Prince and Simon compared COVID-19 cases and deaths in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties against the numbers of passengers arriving from each of two countries targeted by the initial bans – China and Italy. According to the study, U.S. counties that received more passengers from China at the beginning of the pandemic did not experience higher COVID-19 infection and fatality rates than other counties on average through May 2020; in fact, both outcomes were lower. Additionally, counties that received more passengers from Italy at the beginning of the pandemic experienced higher COVID-19 infection and fatality rates. Specifically, an additional 100 passengers from Italy arriving in a given county during the fourth quarter of 2019 corresponded with an increase in both case and death rates of about 5 percent. The study’s preliminary results suggest that travelers coming from Italy drove the first wave in the U.S. more than those from China. Based on these findings, Prince and Simon say the relatively early ban on travel from China appears to have been effective in reducing cases and deaths. When then-President Trump shut down flights from China, the virus may have not yet spread widely enough among travelers from China to significantly contribute to the early wave of the pandemic in the U.S. Waiting until mid-March to impose a ban on travel from Europe, however, appears to have had deadly consequences. Prince and Simon say if a travel ban is warranted, time is of the essence. Although the study’s results provide strong evidence that international travel from Italy increased the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. during the first wave of the pandemic, this occurred at a time when people were largely unaware of the virus and the threat that it posed. Prince and Simon say today, with both travelers and policymakers aware of the threat, it is uncertain what effect international travel would have on the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. At the same time, they say new, more transmittable strains of the virus increase the threat from international travel. If the evidence does warrant additional travel restrictions, the research says to act quickly and think broadly.