Masks and Free Testing Can’t Curb Omicron Spread – We Should Be Paying Attention Instead IG News

IG News report,

As we face continued waves of COVID-19, there have been calls for the UK to reintroduce measures such as the mask mandate and free testing. But how much of a difference would such an intervention really make on the COVID spread in the Omicron era?

Let’s take a look at UK and global data to get an idea. Focusing on 2022 is important, as this data captures the period during which fast-spreading Omicron variants have been circulating.

Data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows how common COVID has become over time. These are nationally representative estimates from a larger survey, and do not depend on the availability of tests.

Office of National Statistics (ONS), UK

As you can see in the graph on the right, which charts COVID cases across the UK since last July’s “Independence Day”, infections have increased significantly in the Omicron era compared to 2021. Omicron spreads so rapidly because it is both highly contagious and able to evade immunity from our current vaccines and prior infections.

Two years into the pandemic, we may also be at the peak of how well mask mandates and testing policies will be followed, should they be implemented. For example, we know that people did not follow the rules during the second wave of the pandemic as they did in the first.

These things together mean that we can expect that COVID will be very difficult to control now.

Comprehensiveness and Policies

We can see peaks in January, April and July where about 7%, 8% and 6% of people in England were infected respectively.

The UK offered a free trial during the January wave. These ended on April 1, when the second wave peaked, so were available during the rise of that wave, but not for the July wave.

During the first wave the UK had access to public transport (for example, the Transport for London mandate ended on 24 February), schools (until 27 January) and universities (for example, UCL lasting until May, also covering April). Masks were the mandate. Shake).

Notably, the proportion of people voluntarily taking preventive measures has also declined. For example, the ONS reports that only 34% of people wore masks in the week to July 31, down from 65% in the spring.

Read more: The tide of the COVID pandemic is rising – but that doesn’t mean the big waves can’t catch us still

Below is Google mobility data (movement data collected from Google devices) for the UK in 2022.

mobility in the UK

Graph showing Google Mobility data for the UK during 2022.

ONS and Google, author provided

We can see that mobility, a proxy for social mixing (and therefore COVID risk) increases and is generally highest for the July wave. If masks or free tests were working to suppress COVID, we might expect the July wave to be significantly larger in their absence, especially given the increase in social distancing. But it is actually smaller than the last two waves.

While many respiratory diseases tend to peak in winter, the evidence is not conclusive as to the extent to which COVID is affected by the seasons. Therefore the slightly lower peak of the July wave cannot necessarily be explained by the summer season.

The seemingly minimal impact of these measures is understandable if we consider that masks do not protect us when we eat or drink with others, and they are not commonly worn by friends and family or in our homes. Also, there can be a lot of COVID risk when cases are high and people are socializing at pre-pandemic levels, even for good masks to make a significant difference.

The situation is similar when we consider testing. Many people may have passed Omicron to others by the time they are tested, while others may be reluctant to get tested at first. This can especially apply to children and others who dislike testing, or see that there is no end to the pandemic.

Many people may also count the days after a positive test to isolate (according to public health guidance), the potential for a negative test to confirm that they are no longer infectious. Instead of waiting much longer.

So what is continuously driving the rise and fall of the waves?

it seems that covid waves It is now being driven almost entirely by reducing hybrid immunity. It is immunity from vaccines and prior infections, which decline over time, accelerating the next wave. In this context, masks, free testing, and other non-restrictive interventions that do not confer immunity will probably have limited impact.

Could the UK’s July wave be shorter if there were free testing or mask mandates? Possibly, but given cases are now declining largely without masks or high admixture of testing, it may instead be slightly flatter and longer with the same number of infected people reaching the same level of immunity. Is.

Read more: Coronavirus – a brief history

Looking at other countries it is clear that very few people are successfully controlling Omicron. For example, sometimes less COVID countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand are seeing a significant number of cases despite stricter COVID control policies than the UK.

covid around the world

The chart showing the UK's cases is very low compared to other countries.
There were confirmed COVID cases per million people in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand and the UK.
Our world in data, CC BY

It appears that only China is controlling the spread of Omicron, but in a destabilizing manner with lockdowns, mandatory mass testing and other restrictive interventions.

what next?

We have passed the emergency phase of the pandemic and COVID is now away our top health problem,

Exclusively given free trials Costly And while there are likely to be minimal benefits at the population level, I would argue that the resources that would be needed to provide them should be spent on other areas of health.

The NHS staffing, ambulance and primary care crisis in the UK needs urgent attention. Much can be done to address major causes of death such as heart disease and dementia, as well as mental health and poor quality of life, at least given the impending winter economic crisis.

Globally, child health will benefit from increased investment. For example, childhood pneumonia kills 300 times more children a year than children under five, many of whom die from simple antibiotics or lack of oxygen.

We may need to accept that there are limits to what we can do To control COVID going forward, We can take comfort from the fact that fewer people are getting very sick and dying from COVID because of vaccines, and turning our attention to addressing big unheard health problems at home and abroad.


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