March 30 (UPI) -- Even with COVID-19 vaccines widely available, people must still wear masks, practice social distancing and stay away from crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces to suppress the virus and avoid future lockdowns, a study published Tuesday by the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The modeling analysis assessed the effectiveness of future pandemic control measures in Britain, which has instituted national lockdowns on several occasions since last March.
Although these restrictions, including the closure of schools and many businesses, will be relaxed in the coming weeks, the public will still need to use face coverings and maintain social distancing to avoid their reinstatement, according to the researchers.
In addition, these measures could help reduce the risk for future infectious disease outbreaks, they said.
"Measures such as lockdowns that limit how far potentially infected people move can have a stronger impact on controlling the spread of disease," co-author Stephen Cornell said in a statement.
However, "methods that reduce the risk of transmission whenever people mix provide an inexpensive way to supplement them," said Cornell, a professor of evolution, ecology and behavior at the University of Liverpool in England.
In the United States, decisions on pandemic response have been left up to state and local governments, with each jurisdiction taking different approaches.
States such as New York and California have instituted stay-at-home orders, closing schools and most businesses and mandating the use of face coverings in most public spaces.
Other states, including Florida and Texas, among others, have implemented less drastic measures and relaxed restrictions earlier, a concern for federal officials such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Walensky spoke of a steady increase in coronavirus infections nationally on Monday, and warned of "impending doom" in her remarks.
For this study, scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool in England used computer models of virus spread under different potential control scenarios.
The scenarios combined "non-spatial" measures such as facemasks, handwashing and maintaining three to six feet of social distancing, and "spatial" strategies such as local lockdowns and travel restrictions.
The model also considered the socioeconomic impact of both types of measures, and how this has changed during the pandemic.
The socioeconomic consequences of spatial measures such as lockdowns have increased over time, while the cost of non-spatial control measures has decreased as facemasks have become more widely available and people have become used to wearing them.
This latter development is positive, given that control measures including mask-wearing will need to be "ramped up" as lockdowns are lifted to avoid future outbreaks, based on computer modelling, the researchers said.
There would need to be widespread compliance with these approaches to effectively stamp out the virus, they said.
The findings echo comments made last week by public health experts at Johns Hopkins University, who said that mask-wearing may be part of the "new normal" even after the pandemic is under control.
"More effective use of control measures like facemasks and handwashing would help us to stop the pandemic faster, or to get better results in halting transmission through the vaccination program," Yevhen Suprunenko, co-author of the new study, said in a press release.
"This also means we could avoid another potential lockdown," said Suprunenko, a research associate in the University of Cambridge, also in England.