Unsure About Wearing a Mask? If You Could See COVID, the Decision Might Be Easy

Would people be rushing back to beaches, malls and other public venues if they knew, quite literally, what they were walking into – those clusters of particles not visible to the naked eye?

"We spit out a lot of saliva droplets that we do not see,” says UCLA Health pathologist Shangxin Yang, PhD. “There’s a lot of virus in the saliva. When you cough, when you cry, when you sing, when you yell – if a patient is infected that has a virus there are billions of particles in the saliva and when you're next to that person you can breathe it in. It lands on your face, your nose, you wipe it and then you become infected. That’s why wearing a mask is so important."

As society began reopening in Los Angeles County following the lifting of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, Yang took his family to a local beach. All wore face masks – and admittedly, Yang says, they felt a bit uncomfortable.

Since then, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an order requiring people to wear face coverings in public settings as many residents have balked at covering up. During his beach visit, Dr. Yang saw evidence of that reluctance.

“We saw high-schoolers hanging out without wearing masks and very closely gathering like there was no virus,” he says. “That’s a problem. You just need to take one person spitting out this virus and the whole group could be infected.”

Yang and his family found a secluded spot, away from the mask-less crowd.

“When you go to the beach, 80% of people don’t wear a mask. When you’re in the minority wearing a mask, you feel a little bit awkward,” he says. “Wearing a mask is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus, but it requires everyone to wear it. A lot of people do not even know they are infected."

Many local beaches have been closed for the Fourth of July weekend to limit potential exposure to the virus.

But as difficult as it is returning to normal at outdoor gathering spots, it’s even more challenging indoors. Yang says the coronavirus can potentially spread through the air for longer distances in a very crowded indoor environment without sufficient air circulation, especially if there’s a “super spreader” who’s not wearing a mask.

Plus, it’s harder to avoid people who aren’t wearing masks when you’re in a confined space.

“If you’re outdoors and you see someone not wearing a mask you can stay away, but if you’re indoors, in a store, and space is limited, there really is nowhere to go and you have a greater chance of catching the virus,” Yang says.

As of July 1, nearly 2.6 million cases of COVD-19 had been recorded in the U.S., with almost 130,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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