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Face it: N.C. researchers say COVID-19 hasn't left, so it's best to wear masks. Still.
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Face it: N.C. researchers say COVID-19 hasn't left, so it's best to wear masks. Still.

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RALEIGH — The government may no longer require North Carolinians to wear masks in public, but putting them on could help prevent thousands of coronavirus cases and deaths by the end of the year, according to researchers at three of the state’s universities.

The researchers have created a computer model that predicts coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths under various scenarios. The variables include vaccination rates and effectiveness of the vaccines, as well as adherence to measures meant to prevent spread of the virus, such as closing schools and workplaces.

According to the model, abandoning mask wearing among other preventive measures will result in a rise in coronavirus cases.

For example, Wake County, where 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated, would see 19.5% fewer infections and 18% fewer deaths by late December if people continued to wear masks and work from home than if they did not.

Statewide, under the same scenario, there would be more than 430,000 fewer infections during that time, according to the model.

That would translate into roughly 1,150 fewer deaths in North Carolina by the end of the year.

The likely outcome is somewhere between the two extremes of totally embracing or completely abandoning preventive measures, said Julie Swann, an N.C. State University professor who played a lead role in the modeling work.

The bottom line, she says, is that the coronavirus hasn’t gone away.

“We are seeing a lot of discussion, in headlines and elsewhere, that suggests the pandemic has run its course in the United States,” Swann said in a written statement. “We think that may be misleading and feel that sharing these findings now could help reduce the number of people affected by COVID-19 over the next seven months in North Carolina, and in states with similar vaccination rates.”

The computer model was developed about a decade ago and has been adapted and applied to the coronavirus throughout the pandemic, Swann said.

Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, was not involved with the model but says its forecasts are plausible. Even with 50% of the population vaccinated against COVID-19, masking and other preventive measures are still needed to save lives, Wohl said.

“Fifty percent is great,” he said, “but we really need much more than that to prevent the kind of surge that is being predicted in this model.”

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