With the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in some areas across the country, health officials continue to urge people to wear masks in crowds. But many individuals remain reluctant to cover their faces in public. So I asked a colleague from our biology department to share her thoughts on the effectiveness of face coverings.

Dr. Karen Stine is a biology professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, who specializes in toxicology (study of poisons) and has taught courses in toxicology, pharmacology, cell biology, physiology and environmental science. She provided links to research articles that support the current science.

Q: Do masks really help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Stine: It’s a fair question. Early on, scientists and doctors were not encouraging (and in fact were discouraging) mask use. But as evidence mounted, we learned from it - that’s how science works - and now, the scientific and medical advice has changed. The consensus now is that wearing a mask in public can greatly reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Q: What has the science shown the biomedical community that makes them support this?

Stine: A few facts have become clear over the last months. People can spread the virus without showing symptoms (see https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/7/20-1595_article). We also know the virus is predominantly spread through respiratory droplets (see https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/10/2009637117) and that cloth masks are effective at blocking the release of respiratory droplets by infected people. Some of this evidence is from other viruses but should generalize to COVID-19 (see https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0843-2).

Q: So what conclusion can be drawn from that evidence?

Stine: If everyone wears masks, which block respiratory droplets, transmission of the virus should be greatly reduced.

Q: But does this work in the real world?

Stine: Evidence now indicates that masks, along with other measures, can indeed make a difference (see https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(20)31142-9.pdf). Also, strong anecdotal evidence from countries in both Asia and Europe that have mandated masks in public lends support to the premise that masks can be an effective tool in dramatically reducing coronavirus transmission.

Q: Should everyone wear a mask in public?

Stine: For a very small segment of the population, wearing a mask is not medically recommended. For the rest of us, it is not only safe but is also the most effective thing we can do to make others feel safe, as well. And remember, workers in medical and other fields have always worn them!

Q: But some people feel wearing a mask infringes on their freedom. How do you convince these people to wear masks?

Stine: Perhaps it does a bit. But if mild inconvenience outweighs civic responsibility for you in a time of national crisis - and over 100,000 deaths nationwide certainly qualifies as a crisis - are you comfortable with what that says about your values?

Q: So if you could speak directly to people who are reluctant to wear a mask in public, what would you say to them?

Stine: The bottom line is that strong scientific evidence indicates that if everyone wears a mask in public (and maintains appropriate social distancing), rates of COVID-19 infection will drop, and we can all enjoy much safer freedom of movement as we go about our daily lives. Also, those still isolated at home can more safely emerge and help boost our struggling economy. It’s a win for everyone. So, wear a mask. Please. Lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.