In a study published last week in the journal Nature, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated that “universal mask use” — when 95 percent of people wear masks in public — could prevent nearly 130,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the coming months, though those numbers are based on certain assumptions and could change if people alter their behavior. Currently, just 69 percent of Americans wear masks, according to data gathered by the institute.
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Even so, any hint of a sweeping federal requirement would “go over like a lead balloon,” and “divide and harden areas of the country in opposition,” said Joel White, a Republican strategist with expertise in health policy. Mr. White said the Trump administration’s policy, of letting state and local leaders decide about masks, was “a far better way to go.”
But that has not produced the kind of compliance that public health experts say is necessary to reduce the spread of the virus. As of last week, 33 states and the District of Columbia required mask-wearing in public, according to a list compiled by AARP. But in certain parts of the country, especially heavily Republican states, resistance is deep — even when cases are soaring.
Many people in rural areas view masks as unnecessary for them because they do not live in crowded cities; in North Dakota, coronavirus cases are rising faster than any other state in the nation, but according to the University of Washington’s data, just 46 percent of North Dakotans are wearing masks.
Gov. Doug Burgum, a first-term Republican seeking re-election, is firmly opposed to a mandate, saying that while he favors wearing masks, people should do so out of “personal responsibility.”
During a visit to the state on Monday, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, upbraided North Dakotans after a private meeting with the governor and business leaders.