(Inside Science) -- Even before the first COVID-19 cases hit Europe, an international team of researchers anticipated that public health policymakers in different countries would be seeking recommendations on how to delay or flatten the peak of an epidemic. After the first epidemic wave in Europe was curbed by national lockdowns, the question remained: How could countries avoid or diminish a second wave of infections?
A new study gives clues about the impact of different policies used to control outbreaks. The team hypothesized that in many Western countries, an outbreak could flare up again when government-imposed interventions lifted, so individual behavior would be key to changing the course of the pandemic.
The study, published today in PLOS Medicine, confirms how important individual actions are. Models showed that if a population quickly becomes aware of the coronavirus and how to reduce transmission, self-imposed prevention measures like hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing can diminish and postpone the peak number of cases.
The prevention measures worked best when implemented promptly and when used in combination. Under those circumstances, the models showed they would reduce transmission of the virus by more than 50%, potentially staving off a second wave altogether, said Ganna Rozhnova, an infectious disease modeler at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “If sufficiently many people will adopt and maintain these, then the lockdowns could be avoided in the future as well as less people will contract the disease,” said Rozhnova.
The study authors noted limitations to their model. For example, the analysis didn't account for individual differences between people based on factors like age and genetics, and it didn't include the possibility that people could be infected more than once.
The study assumes that awareness of COVID-19 grows when people learn about the number of new COVID-19 cases. This type of public awareness could potentially be generated through the media or through notifications from governments or public health institutions, said Rozhnova. She added that it's also important to keep stressing how critical hand-washing, distancing and mask-wearing measures can be.