The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

National mask mandate could save 5 percent of GDP, economists say

The requirement could protect the public while avoiding some of the pain of an economic shutdown, Goldman Sachs research finds

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sits in Tuesday on a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington on the nation's efforts to emerge from pandemic shutdowns. (Pool/Reuters)

After a late-spring lull, daily coronavirus cases in the United States have again hit record highs, driven by resurgent outbreaks in states such as Florida, Arizona and California. Hospitals in Houston are on the brink of being overwhelmed, and public health experts worry the pandemic’s death count will soon be climbing in tandem with the daily case load.

The dire situation has raised the specter of another round of state-level stay-at-home orders to halt the pandemic’s spread and caused a number of governors to pause or reverse reopening plans. Against this backdrop, a team of economists at Goldman Sachs has published an analysis suggesting more painful shutdowns could be averted if the United States implements a nationwide mask mandate.

“A face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP,” the team, led by the investment bank’s chief economist, Jan Hatzius, writes.

It’s worth noting the authors of the report are economists and not public health experts. Their primary motivation is to protect the economic interests of Goldman Sachs’s investors, which is why they’re interested in the effects of federal policy on gross domestic product. But their findings are in line with a number of other published studies on the efficacy of masks.

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The Goldman Sachs report notes the United States is a global outlier with respect to face mask use, which is widespread in Asia and currently mandated in many European countries. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “recommends” the use of masks in public and 20 states plus the District of Columbia have implemented their own mandates, there is no binding national policy and wide regional variations in mask use around the country.

Using state-level survey data, the authors demonstrated that such mandates increased usage in their respective states: “We estimate that statewide mask mandates gradually raise the percentage of people who ‘always’ or ‘frequently’ wear masks by around 25 [percentage points] in the 30+ days after signing.”

They then run a number of analyses at the county and country levels showing higher rates of mask use are associated with lower rates of infection. U.S. county-level data suggest, for instance, that a statewide mask mandate cuts the growth rate of new coronavirus infections by 25 percent.

Country-level comparisons show a similarly large effect. “Our numerical estimates are that cumulative cases grow 17.3% per week without a mask mandate but only 7.3% with a mask mandate, and that cumulative fatalities grow 29% per week without a mask mandate but only 16% with a mask mandate,” the authors wrote.

Applying those figures to the entire United States, the authors estimate such a mandate could dramatically slow the daily growth rate of new infections, from roughly 1.6 percent to 0.6 percent. To get an equivalent effect from an economic shutdown, you’d have to subtract 5 percent from GDP.

Fed’s Powell warns lawmakers not to become complacent in dealing with coronavirus

Kate Grabowski, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who was not involved with the Goldman Sachs study, cautions that it is difficult to tease out the specific effect of mask mandates relative to all the other policy changes states and countries implemented to deal with the pandemic. But she says the research she and her colleagues have reviewed make it clear that masks are “an important component” of the response to the pandemic.

“We need combination prevention,” she said in an interview with The Post. “We need to take everything we have and throw the kitchen sink at it.” At the federal level, Grabowski said she’d like to see, among other things, a concerted effort to secure protective gear for front line workers and the general public, and “a mass public health messaging campaign to increase awareness” of best practices.

“I want to commend Mike Pence for coming out and saying folks should wear masks,” she added. “I would love to see President Trump do the same thing.” The vice president urged Americans to wear face masks during an event Sunday in Dallas. Trump generally won’t wear a mask in public and has been known to criticize those who do.

Other teams of public health researchers have reached similar conclusions about the efficacy of masks. A recent peer-reviewed study in the journal Health Affairs found state-level face mask mandates caused steep drops in the daily infection rate and probably averted hundreds of thousands of additional coronavirus cases by June. A Lancet review of 172 studies also concluded masks were beneficial in slowing the spread of the virus.

Many public health experts stress there’s no silver bullet for combating the virus. Most recommend adopting a range of measures, from mask use to physical distancing to the shutdown of certain high-risk activities, to slow the virus’s spread and save lives. Grabowski stressed that the virus won’t be going away any time soon.

“We’re at the beginning” of the pandemic, she said. “It’s going to be really hard. I worry that people don’t fully understand that this is going to be with us a very long time.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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