Research News

Mask-wearing among strategies to help WNY avoid COVID-19 outbreak like those in South, West

Concept of "bending the curve" featuring an image of New York Ttate and hands pulling a trend line downward.


Published August 3, 2020

“There are multiple prongs of danger facing us in the next month or two. As a community, there are steps we can take to manage the risks. ”
Peter Winkelstein, executive director
Institute for Healthcare Informatics

Major challenges await Western New York and other parts of the state in late summer and early fall, but there are strategies the community can take to reduce the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks, according to UB data scientists.

Since March, the researchers at the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB have been working on modeling COVID-19 transmission rates for the Erie County Department of Health.

Earlier this month, the researchers presented to physicians and New York State public health officials a mini-grand rounds session hosted by Kaleida Health titled “Go Masked or Go Home” showing how COVID-19 might affect Western New York in the coming months, depending on how closely community members follow public health recommendations.

Data were presented by Peter Winkelstein, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Informatics and clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School; Matthew Bonner, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the School of Public Health and Health Professions; Gabriel Anaya, a clinical informatics fellow, and Sarah G. Mullin, a doctoral student, both in the Department of Biomedical Informatics. Anaya and Mullin work under the supervision of Peter Elkin, department chair.

The number of cases locally is still low and the percentage of positive tests is currently 1-2%.

Student wearing a mask boards a Stampede bus.

These students boarding a UB Stampede bus are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, strategies that UB scientists say can help Western New York avoid the kind of COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred in the South and West. Photo: Douglas Levere

However, the UB researchers warn that this situation could be about to change, especially with so many states in the midst of outbreaks that have overwhelmed their health care systems.

“There are rising cases in the states all around us,” Winkelstein said. “They’re coming closer and closer. There are multiple prongs of danger facing us in the next month or two. As a community, there are steps we can take to manage the risks.”

“Until we get a vaccine, we’ve got a limited set of strategies with this,” Bonner agreed. “We must wash hands, wear masks and stay socially distant. The more we practice these strategies, and the more masks are worn in Erie County over the next few months, the more we might be able to avoid what’s happening in other states.”

Added Winkelstein: “Right now, we are benefitting from warm weather, so people are spending a lot of time outdoors. Once the weather isn’t so nice and we get into flu season, wearing masks will become even more essential.”

 A key aspect of the models that Winkelstein, Bonner and their UB team members have developed is that they illustrate how people move through the stages of COVID-19 — from exposure to asymptomatic infection and then, in many cases, on to symptoms.

Modeling asymptomatic transmission

The UB models address both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission. Pre-symptomatic transmission is a period of a couple of days where people are spreading virus but have no symptoms. It appears that every infected person goes through this period.

But some infected people never develop symptoms; they are asymptomatic. A recent publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine put the percentage of people infected with COVID-19 who remain asymptomatic and never show symptoms as high as 45%.

“That’s one of the things that makes this virus dangerous, unlike the flu, where people feel sick and in most cases stay home,” Winkelstein said. “This is why you have to wear a mask all the time because you may have it, but not realize it because you still feel well.”

In the graph below, the UB models, based on the literature and the team’s mathematical modeling of how face masks work, illustrate how different levels of mask-wearing by Western New Yorkers could affect COVID-19 hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

A graph illustrating how different levels of mask-wearing by Western New Yorkers could affect COVID-19 hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

The graph shows that if 75% of the community wears masks whenever they are in public, the number of patients in local hospitals would stay very low through September.

But if only 25% of community members wear masks in public, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 increases dramatically, which would potentially overwhelm the local health care system.

That simple fact, Winkelstein and Bonner said, is the most powerful reason why people need to wear masks in public, nationwide.

“The level of infection in the community is an incredibly powerful driver,” Winkelstein added. “Once it’s out of control, you’ve got to get it under control before doing anything else.”

The UB modeling team works in close collaboration with the Erie County Department of Health and other organizations in Erie County, including Kaleida Health, Erie County Medical Center, Catholic Health, UBMD, Independent Health Association and HEALTHeLINK.