Masking was the single most common non-pharmaceutical intervention in the course of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Most countries have implemented recommendations or mandates regarding the use of masks in public spaces.
The aim of this short study was to analyse the correlation between mask usage against morbidity and mortality rates in the 2020-2021 winter in Europe. Data from 35 European countries on morbidity, mortality, and mask usage during a six-month period were analysed and crossed.
Mask usage was more homogeneous in Eastern Europe than in Western European countries. Spearman’s correlation coefficients between mask usage and COVID-19 outcomes were either null or positive, depending on the subgroup of countries and type of outcome (cases or deaths). Positive correlations were stronger in Western than in Eastern European countries.
These findings indicate that countries with high levels of mask compliance did not perform better than those with low mask usage.
Mask mandates were implemented in almost all world countries and in most places where masks were not obligatory, their use in public spaces was recommended . Accordingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as other public institutions, such as the IHME, from which the data on mask compliance used in this study were obtained, strongly recommend the use of masks as a tool to curb COVID-19 transmission [8,13]. These mandates and recommendations took place despite the fact that most randomised controlled trials carried out before and during the COVID-19 pandemic concluded that the role of masks in preventing respiratory viral transmission was small, null, or inconclusive [1,2,14,15]. Conversely, ecological studies, performed during the first months of the pandemic, comparing countries, states, and provinces before and after the implementation of mask mandates almost unanimously concluded that masks reduced COVID-19 propagation [3-7,16]. However, mask mandates were normally implemented after the peak of COVID-19 cases in the first wave, which might have given the impression that the drop in the number of cases was caused by the increment in mask usage. For instance, the peak of cases in Germany’s first wave occurred in the first week of April 2020, while masks became mandatory in all of Germany’s federal states between the 20th and 29th of April , at a time when the propagation of COVID-19 was already declining. Furthermore, the mask mandate was still in place in the subsequent autumn-winter wave of 2020-2021, but it did not help preventing the outburst of cases and deaths in Germany that was several-fold more severe than in the first wave (Figure 2).
The findings presented in this short communication suggest that countries with high levels of mask compliance did not perform better than those with low mask usage in the six-month period that encompassed the second European wave of COVID-19. It could be argued that some confounding factors could have influenced these results. One of these factors could have been different vaccination rates among the studied countries. However, this is unlikely given the fact that at the end of the period analysed in this study (31th March 2021), vaccination rollout was still at its beginning, with only three countries displaying vaccination rates higher than 20%: the UK (48%), Serbia (35%), and Hungary (30%), with all doses counted individually . It could also be claimed that the rise in infection levels prompted mask usage resulting in higher levels of masking in countries with already higher transmission rates. While this assertion is certainly true for some countries, several others with high infection rates, such as France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain had strict mask mandates in place since the first semester of 2020. In addition, during the six-month period covered by this study, all countries underwent a peak in COVID-19 infections (Figures 1, 2), thus all of them endured similar pressures that might have potentially influenced the level of mask usage.
While no cause-effect conclusions could be inferred from this observational analysis, the lack of negative correlations between mask usage and COVID-19 cases and deaths suggest that the widespread use of masks at a time when an effective intervention was most needed, i.e., during the strong 2020-2021 autumn-winter peak, was not able to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
Moreover, the moderate positive correlation between mask usage and deaths in Western Europe also suggests that the universal use of masks may have had harmful unintended consequences.
Source – https://www.cureus.com/articles/93826-correlation-between-mask-compliance-and-covid-19-outcomes-in-europe