A Spectrum Health sign is posted on a door that reads: "Face masks are required. Do not pass this point without a mask."
Properly wearing a mask around others can reduce the odds of contracting or spreading COVID-19. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s been a long, thorny path from January to November.

“There’s certainly been a lot of things we’ve needed to learn about COVID in the past months,” said Gordana Simeunovic, MD, an infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health. “So much to learn.”

One of the most important things researchers have learned about this virus? That we need to keep our distance from other people, even if they look healthy.

“It most frequently spreads person to person,” Dr. Simeunovic said.

Sneezing, coughing, talking, singing and breathing produce respiratory droplets that transmit the virus.

Research tells us that coming within 6 feet of a person who has the virus puts you at the highest risk of infection because the droplets are most concentrated within that range. But keep in mind the droplets are present in lower concentrations beyond that distance and still drift in the air for some distance and time.

“When we understand how it spreads, we can understand where these recommendations are coming from,” Dr. Simeunovic said.

A mask is the best way to slow the spread of the virus—“particularly when used universally within a community setting,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, MD, said.

In short, a mask helps keep you from spewing your respiratory droplets into the air.

“A mask substantially drops that down,” said Liam Sullivan, DO, a Spectrum Health infectious disease specialist. “You have a barrier there and those droplets are hitting that mask. It’s not 100% effective, but it’s much more effective than nothing.”

If the other person wears a mask and you also wear a mask?

“Now you have two barriers up,” Dr. Sullivan said.

Here’s what you can do to lower your risk of infection:

  1. Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others.
  2. Wear a mask.
  3. Frequently wash your hands.
  4. Avoid indoor visits to bars and restaurants. Order take-out instead.
  5. Stay away from crowds of people, even outdoors.
  6. Ventilate your home and workspace.
  7. Limit gatherings of people beyond your immediate household.
  8. Steer clear of those who aren’t wearing masks or those who wear inadequate protection.
  9. Don’t carpool with others, and if you must ride in a car with those outside your household, everyone should wear a mask.

Emerging research continues to support these recommendations. Quite simply, Dr. Simeunovic said, masks work.

“There are a lot of ongoing studies now,” Dr. Simeunovic said. “And there’s clear evidence that masks are helping.”