UT Health San Antonio launched a public education initiative on Thursday highlighting the science behind face masks as protection against COVID-19. 

The 30-day awareness campaign dubbed “We Can Stop The Spread,” launched in response to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, with Bexar County reporting more than 2,200 new coronavirus cases in the last nine days, including 412 on Friday, bringing the total number of positive tests to 5,962.

“There is no fear-mongering here, this is science,” said Cindy Sickora, vice dean of practice at UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing.“If we want to continue to not have a lockdown, the masks are [important]. We don’t have a vaccine, the only thing we have [that guarantees reduction in spread] is covering our mouth and nose on both sides.”

In early May, the City’s top health official reported that San Antonio successfully flattened the curve following more than 60-days of lockdown, but since then “folks have become much more cavalier about the virus,” Sickora said. “It never meant the pandemic is over, and the restrictions weren’t meant to reduce the number of cases of COVID-19, it was just to delay and spread them out over time.”

Dr. Ruth Berggren, infectious disease specialist and internal medicine physician at UT Health San Antonio said that, with the continued increase in people testing positive for COVID-19, “we are almost about to overwhelm the hospital system,” noting that during a recent shift at University Hospital, 12 patients were admitted to the intensive care unit overnight. 

COVID-19 is highly communicable,” Berggren said. “A significant [risk for] exposure is if an infected person has been within 6 feet of an uninfected person for at least 15 minutes unmasked.” 

Sickora said that part of the struggle to get people to believe in the science behind the virus is to the fact that it is novel, and “every day we learn something new about it,” including how it affects certain age groups, variations in symptoms, and how it can be treated. 

But for health care workers, face masks to protect against respiratory secretion have saved people from contracting similarly-spread diseases like tuberculosis and meningitis for decades, because “you don’t give it to me, I don’t give it to you because your mouth and nose are covered,” Sickora said. “While we don’t know everything about the virus, we do know enough to know that people should absolutely cover their face.”

study released this week in Health Affairs, a peer-reviewed health care journal, found that masks prevented as many as 230,000 to 450,000 COVID-19 cases by May 22 in the 15 states that adopted mask mandates early in the pandemic. 

“These are powerful numbers; a quarter of a million people not getting sick just because people were mandated to use face masks for one month – that is huge,” Berggren said. “There is really no debate, because the evidence is far more than anecdotal. Putting on a mask is a minor inconvenience we can all put up with in favor of the obvious benefits.” 

Amelie Ramirez, director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio, said that the most important thing for people to understand is that wearing masks is going to be the “new normal” for a while. 

“Behavior change is tough, but everyone is getting a little tired of staying in place, so they need to remain cautious and understand that there is a way for us to get back to regular life responsibly,” Ramirez said. “There are always going to be naysayers who don’t want to believe this is going to make a difference until it impacts them.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs businesses to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible beginning Monday.

Under the new order, individuals will not be fined for failure to wear a mask, but businesses can be penalized for failing to implement face-covering policies. Failure to implement the policy by Monday could result in a fine up to $1,000, according to the order.

While wearing masks at the grocery store or a restaurant or bar is a step in the right direction, health experts agree that people should leave the home only when necessary and limit social gatherings, including any planned this weekend for Father’s Day.

“The best way to show you love for dad this year is to make sure dad is protected and not have a family gathering,” Ramirez said. “For most patients being treated in hospitals, they don’t have a history of going out to bars, they have had contact with friends and family at in-home gatherings.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.