Understanding transmission and intervention for the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Academic Article uri icon


  • The outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) severely threatens the public health worldwide, but the transmission mechanism and the effectiveness of mitigation measures remain uncertain. Here we assess the role of airborne transmission in spreading the disease and the effectiveness of face covering in preventing inter-human transmission for the top-fifteen infected U.S. states during March 1 and May 18, 2020. For all fifteen states, the curve of total confirmed infections exhibits an initial sub-exponential growth and a subsequent linear growth after implementing social distancing/stay-at-home orders. The linearity extends one to two months for the six states without mandated face covering and to the onset of mandated face covering for the other nine states with this measure, reflecting a dynamic equilibrium between first-order transmission kinetics and intervention. For the states with mandated face covering, significant deviation from this linearity and curve flattening occur after the onset of this measure for seven states, with exceptions for two states. Most states exhibit persistent upward trends in the daily new infections after social distancing/stay-at-home orders, while reversed downward or slowing trends occur for eight states after implementing mandated face covering. The inadequacy of social distancing and stay-at-home measures alone in preventing inter-human transmission is reflected by the continuous linear growth in the total infection curve after implementing these measures, which is mainly driven by airborne transmission. We estimate that the number of the total infections prevented by face covering reaches ~252,000 on May 18 in seven states, which is equivalent to ~17% of the total infections in the nation. We conclude that airborne transmission and face covering play the dominant role in spreading the disease and flattening the total infection curve, respectively. Our findings provide policymakers and the public with compelling evidence that universal face covering, in conjunction with social distancing and hand hygiene, represents the maximal protection against inter-human transmission and the combination of these intervention measures with rapid and extensive testing as well as contact tracing is crucial in containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

published proceedings

  • Sci Total Environ

altmetric score

  • 61.43

author list (cited authors)

  • Li, Y., Zhang, R., Zhao, J., & Molina, M. J.

citation count

  • 26

complete list of authors

  • Li, Yixin||Zhang, Renyi||Zhao, Jiayun||Molina, Mario J

publication date

  • December 2020