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Masks help bring down Covid-19 cases, governors and state health officials say

"Masks work. Physical distancing works. And the number don't lie," Indiana governor says about the state's declining new cases of coronavirus.
New York City Reopens Malls While In-Door Dining Remains On Hold
Shoppers wearing protective masks walk through the Queens Center shopping mall in New York City on Sept. 9, 2020.Peter Foley / Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are still many Americans who resist, protest against and rant about wearing face masks. But state and county health officials across the country say the stark drop in Covid-19 case counts in their communities before and after mask orders were imposed clearly show how effective they can be in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey announced a statewide mandatory mask order on July 16. Since then, the state saw a significant drop in daily Covid-19 cases, with numbers peaking above 2,000 toward the end of July and hovering over a 1,000 a month later. And now, cases have plummeted to 574 a day.

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“The mask absolutely played a very important role and we really have had no other significant limitations or interventions other than the mask,” Dr. Scott Harris, state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health, told NBC News this week.

Indiana currently has one of the lowest coronavirus transmission rates in the U.S., a significant result of the statewide mask orders, Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday. "I don’t want that lost on anyone that what we’re doing is working," Holcomb said during a briefing. "Masks work. Physical distancing works. And the number don't lie."

Image: Michigan Protests
Protesters rally at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich. on April 30, 2020.Paul Sancya / AP file

With no federal mandate, 34 governors have ordered statewide mask mandates. Others have left the decision to county officials.

This week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds described wearing a mask a "feel-good" act. But Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called them "the most powerful public health tool” against the coronavirus. “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine,” Redfield said at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

South Carolina has no statewide mask requirements, leaving 11 jurisdictions with mask mandates and 61 without. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s latest findings, from mid-August, report that communities with mask mandates saw a drop of 34 cases per 100,000 people for the four weeks after the requirements were implemented, compared to before the orders took effect. In the same period, jurisdictions without mask requirements saw a rise of 24 cases per 100,000 people.

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Clearly, the mask orders make a difference, experts say.

"Our South Carolina mask analysis data shows us what we already knew, wearing face masks works,” Dr. Linda Bell, an epidemiologist at the South Carolina health department, told NBC News in an email.

There is no statewide mask order in Nebraska, but health officials in Douglas County implemented a mask mandate on Aug. 11. and have publicly said the order had a direct effect on Covid-19 cases. On Sept. 13, there were new 529 cases in Douglas county, down from 836 on Aug. 15, the week the mask orders took effect.

“This is tremendous progress for the entire community,” Adi Pour, health director of the Douglas County Health Department, said in a statement. “That drop is a credit to everyone involved.”

In North and South Dakota, cases have been on the rise and the governors in both states have not implemented a statewide mask order. Dr. Joel Walz, public health officer of Grand Forks County, North Dakota, said that mask mandates have been brought up at the city council level, but nothing has been set in place. “The issue about the mask mandate always seems to come back to enforcement,” he said.

Enforcement orders are starting to be implemented in other parts of the country. Starting this week in New York City, MTA riders could be fined $50 for refusing to wear a mask.

Still, Walz recommends that people wear a mask even if there’s no mandate. “Wearing a mask is one of the simplest prevention measures we can do,” he said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been numerous studies showing that masks work in stemming transmission of the virus. Among them is a study that shows state government mandates make a measurable impact. Using public data, the researchers found a bigger decline in daily Covid-19 cases in states with mask mandates compared with those without, estimating that as many as 200,000 Covid-19 cases were avoided.

The CDC recommends using a mask with two or more layers, and to make sure it covers your nose and mouth.

In addition to mask mandates being responsible for declining case counts, officials say they’re a crucial tool for prevention as well.

“The truth is we don't have a lot of weapons in our arsenal to fight this virus. We don't have a vaccine available yet. We don't have tremendously effective medication available,” Harris said. “Our best hope in eliminating Covid is prevention of new cases.”

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