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Wearing a mask protects others and science proves it, UT Health experts say

Masks stop the droplets and prevents potentially infected individuals from spreading the virus to others

SAN ANTONIO*This article was initially published on UT Health San Antonio’s newsroom website and was republished on KSAT.com with permission from UT Health.

Wearing a mask isn’t always fashionable, and it isn’t always comfortable. But during the pandemic, donning a face mask or covering is the best thing we can do for ourselves, our families and the community.

Masking can reduce the surge; science proves it.

“Masking is the centerpiece of the ‘We Can Stop the Spread’ public education initiative at UT Health San Antonio, and with good reason,” said Ruth Berggren, MD, MACP, infectious diseases specialist in the university’s Long School of Medicine and director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics.

“When San Antonio and Bexar County went on lockdown in March and April, and a high percentage of people were wearing masks and social distancing, we did an excellent job limiting exposures to COVID-19,” Dr. Berggren said. “Now, with cases and hospitalizations on a steep rise, it is imperative that we do it again and practice safe behaviors. This virus is not going away.”

The coronavirus spreads through respiratory particles that travel up to 6 feet. Masking stops the droplets and prevents potentially infected individuals from spreading the virus to others.

A study published recently in the journal Health Affairs served as a “natural experiment” on state government-mandated face mask use in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Mandates were issued between April 8 and May 15.

“The researchers examined rates of growth of COVID-19 in the population according to the number of days after the masking orders took effect,” Dr. Berggren said.

Just five days after mandated masking began, the daily COVID-19 growth rate declined by 0.9 percent. After 21 days, there was a daily 2% decrease in the growth rate of COVID-19.

The researchers estimated that a quarter of a million or more cases were prevented.

“Imagine how many senior adults, cancer patients or transplant recipients were spared from contracting COVID-19,” Dr. Berggren said. “Masking is an inexpensive and effective intervention that helps grandmothers and grandfathers, infants and those with complex medical conditions.”

It also helps everyone else: business owners, customers, travelers and so forth.

“Opening up is necessary economically, but do it successfully, we need to mask and continue other safe behaviors, such as 6-foot social distancing and hand washing and sanitizing,” Dr. Berggren said.

If nothing is done differently, the coronavirus surge by August is projected to take San Antonio and Bexar County hospitalization needs above the 1,400 COVID-19-dedicated beds currently available in the city.

But if safe behaviors – masking, social distancing, hand washing and avoiding large indoor gatherings – are embraced again by the public, the demand for hospital beds by COVID-19 patients can stay well within the bed limit, Dr. Berggren said.

A significant exposure occurs when an infected person has been within 6 feet of an uninfected person for at least 15 minutes unmasked, said Dr. Berggren, a member of the Health Transition Team that gave medical counsel to assist the reopening of San Antonio and Bexar County.

The Health Transition Team recommended public masking in May. Currently, Bexar County businesses are under a mandate to require that their clients wear the mask. Businesses that don’t do this can be fined.

Dr. Berggren recalled a story about a hair salon where workers, who later learned they were infected, cut patrons’ hair. Because they were masked, there was no transmission.

“We protect others when we wear a mask,” Dr. Berggren said.

The numbers, both in San Antonio and in the 15 states studied, show it.