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Role of masks, testing and contact tracing in preventing COVID-19 resurgences: a case study from New South Wales, Australia.

Stuart RM, Abeysuriya RG, Kerr CC, Mistry D, Klein DJ, Gray RT, Hellard M, Scott N

  • Journal BMJ Open

  • Published 20 Apr 2021

  • Volume 11

  • ISSUE 4

  • Pagination e045941

  • DOI 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-045941


The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, has the potential to spread exponentially. Therefore, as long as a substantial proportion of the population remains susceptible to infection, the potential for new epidemic waves persists even in settings with low numbers of active COVID-19 infections, unless sufficient countermeasures are in place. We aim to quantify vulnerability to resurgences in COVID-19 transmission under variations in the levels of testing, tracing and mask usage.

The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), a setting with prolonged low transmission, high mobility, non-universal mask usage and a well-functioning test-and-trace system.

None (simulation study).

We find that the relative impact of masks is greatest when testing and tracing rates are lower and vice versa. Scenarios with very high testing rates (90% of people with symptoms, plus 90% of people with a known history of contact with a confirmed case) were estimated to lead to a robustly controlled epidemic. However, across comparable levels of mask uptake and contact tracing, the number of infections over this period was projected to be 2-3 times higher if the testing rate was 80% instead of 90%, 8-12 times higher if the testing rate was 65% or 30-50 times higher with a 50% testing rate. In reality, NSW diagnosed 254 locally acquired cases over this period, an outcome that had a moderate probability in the model (10%-18%) assuming low mask uptake (0%-25%), even in the presence of extremely high testing (90%) and near-perfect community contact tracing (75%-100%), and a considerably higher probability if testing or tracing were at lower levels.

Our work suggests that testing, tracing and masks can all be effective means of controlling transmission. A multifaceted strategy that combines all three, alongside continued hygiene and distancing protocols, is likely to be the most robust means of controlling transmission of SARS-CoV-2.