Experts estimate that over 160,000 more Americans could die of COVID-19 between now and February 1.
But analysis from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been projecting the impact of the pandemic since the beginning, finds that if Americans consistently wear face masks when they leave their homes, 60,000 of those lives could be saved.
IHME estimates that if transmission rates and regulations continue at their current rate, 399,000 Americans will die of the virus by February. But if mask wearing increases to 95%, that number drops to 337,000 deaths.
"That’s not a number that we pulled out of a hat, we see it in other counties like Singapore, so it’s doable," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, Professor of Health Metrics Sciences with IHME and Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health at the University of Washington.
He said mask wearing in the U.S. is at about 65% currently, with compliance higher on average in the northeast and on the west coast.
IHME has been tracking the pandemic since its early days and Dr. Mokdad said the projections have been accurate about 95 percent of the time.
Dr. Mokdad said the evidence supporting the efficacy of masks is strong.
"First, we have done meta-analysis and we have showed how effective masks are. And we are using in our estimates the lower effect, so we are being conservative about the effect of masks," he said. "We have ongoing right now a natural experiment where countries who are using masks are seeing a reduction in cases."
Dr. Mokdad said there is a convincing body of evidence, both from the IHME and researchers around the world, that even a simple cloth face mask can be effective at reducing transmission without any adverse health effects.
"We have the proof, the science and the reality as well," he said. "The bottom line is masks do reduce the transmission, they do save lives."