You wouldn’t drive a nail with a screwdriver or flip a steak with a garden hose. Having the right tool for the job makes all the difference — and right now, the latest research and evidence points to masks being the tool we need to slow the spread of COVID-19.

We are seeing a real and marked increase in COVID-19 in our region and other parts of Texas. Not only are case numbers up, but the percentage of tests coming back positive is up significantly.

The uptick is concerning, and cities and counties across the state are issuing masking requirements in response. We at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston applaud these efforts and have made masks mandatory for employees, students, patients and guests on our campuses and in our clinics.

Are masks a silver bullet against COVID-19? No. But they are a useful and effective tool we can add, alongside social distancing, frequent and thorough hand washing, and self-isolation when ill.

There may be some confusion because early in the pandemic, health agencies and our own experts recommended the public not wear masks. There were concerns masks were ineffective, that they would not be worn properly and therefore increase exposure to the virus and that there were not enough masks available for frontline health care workers.

What’s changed? Hospitals have shored up their stocks of personal protective equipment, there is more education and awareness about proper mask-wearing and — most importantly — we know more about how COVID-19 spreads. Scientists at the medical branch and around the world have been working tirelessly to better understand this virus.

The latest research plainly shows that even homemade masks prevent its spread.

Thanks to recently published studies, we now know respiratory droplets from infected individuals — even from those who show no symptoms or have yet to show symptoms — are the main route the virus is transmitted between people. Droplets can come from coughing, sneezing, talking or even just breathing.

Masks are the first line of defense as they help people keep their droplets to themselves. A mask also prevents those droplets from dispersing into smaller, aerosolized particles that can float and linger in the air for a longer period of time.

Research shows just how important wearing a mask can be. A recent national study found not wearing a face mask dramatically increased a person’s chances of being infected. A separate computer forecasting model found if 80 percent of people wear masks, infection rates would plummet.

As we face increased community spread of COVID-19, mask-wearing makes economic sense. We all want to keep our economy open and functioning. We can continue to enjoy and support local businesses safely, if we are careful about hygiene and social distancing and if we all wear masks.

Most importantly, wearing a mask can protect someone you know and love. It takes only one person in a household getting infected to bring the virus back home, potentially infecting an elderly or immunocompromised member of the family. A maskless outing to a store, restaurant or party is not worth putting mom or dad, grandma or grandpa in the hospital.

Wearing a mask in public is a low-risk, high-reward step we can all take to help stop the spread of COVID-19. There has been a lot of debate about personal freedom in relation to masks, but perhaps what is missing is a conversation about personal responsibility.

We each have responsibility for supporting public health in our communities — to take care of ourselves and each other. Fortunately, research confirms we all have simple tools for combatting COVID-19. Keep our (physical) distance. Stay home and isolated from others if we are ill. Wash our hands — more often than we think we need to. And wear a mask!

Ben G. Raimer, MD, MA, FAAP, is interim president of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

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Thank you for the informative commentary. Unfortunately, few will apply these ideas as you can see by the dearth of masks worn in local stores. I would add to just stay home period except for grocery shopping or essentials - just like everyone faithfully did in March.

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