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Why requiring face masks may be as important as social distancing and staying home

We're more likely to catch the virus from the airborne droplets of an infected person than from virus that may linger on a surface.

AUSTIN, Texas — In case there’s any doubt about the importance of wearing face masks during this pandemic, a new study shows that face coverings are one of the best ways to avoid the spread of the virus.

When we sneeze, thousands of droplets called aerosols linger in the air. If the person who sneezes has the COVID-19 infection and you’re nearby and neither person is wearing a mask, you especially risk catching it yourself.

Even if the person who sneezes walks away, their aerosols can remain in the air for more than 10 minutes, health experts say.

But it’s not just sneezing. The National Institute of Health said even when we talk, we shoot saliva droplets into the air. If the person talking has the virus and no mask, we might catch it too.


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That spread of COVID-19 through the air was one of the discoveries made by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and two California universities.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  noted "airborne transmission via respiratory aerosols represents the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19."

That supports research by the Centers for Disease Control that concluded we’re more likely to catch the virus from the airborne droplets of an infected person than from the virus that may linger on a surface.

RELATED: Mayor Adler speaks as Austin businesses begin enforcing face coverings

The university researchers also looked at case data from COVID-19 outbreaks in Wuhan Province, China, Italy and New York City. They determined that while social distancing and stay-at-home orders were somewhat effective in slowing the spread of the virus, requiring the wearing of face coverings was a major determinant in stopping its rapid spread.

Regardless of how one feels about wearing a mask, the scientists’ message was clear. They concluded “wearing a face mask in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent inter-human transmission of COVID-19.”


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