The topic of face coverings is divisive and their value in preventing COVID-19 spread may seem unclear. With social media and the 24-hour entertainment news cycle, where can we turn for unbiased, reliable data on this small, but hotly contested protective measure?

We are a numbers-obsessed society. We want to know how many pounds we’ll lose with our new diet, how many people turned out for that event, and how many new COVID cases we have today. In actuality, precision is difficult to obtain in our world.

With disasters, war, and disease, we learn more as time passes. Researchers, doctors, and scientists need time and resources to do their best work, find trends, and draw sound conclusions. Peer-reviewed articles serve as the distribution highway for this work, and an average peer-review can take upwards of three months with articles rarely accepted on the first review.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, this time lag for credible, useful data has resulted in tenuous policy decisions, social uncertainty, and loss of life. Consequently, we are seeing a rapid push of unsubstantiated COVID research, leading to decreased data quality, questionable conclusions, and skepticism from the public.

In the era of preprints and unverified research, what do the peer-reviewed data say about face coverings as a protective measure?

First, the use of face coverings as a protective measure is based on two fundamental assumptions of COVID-19 spread: Some people who are infected show mild or no symptoms, and as our society reopens during this pandemic, social distancing may not always be realistic.

Peer-reviewed research has found that when social distancing cannot be observed, face coverings can drastically reduce the likelihood of COVID transmission. In fact, several peer-reviewed studies support this conclusion. Furthermore, researchers found that hand washing is not enough, but when coupled with face covering, both of these measures effectively reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Face coverings are a tool to reduce COVID-19 spread, and as with all tools, they have an appropriate time, place and use. For face coverings, that time is when crowds and close contact cannot be avoided.

With Montana reopening, COVID-19 cases are increasing in Gallatin County (that number obsession in real time), and many of these cases are linked to community spread. As new research estimates 22% of all humans on earth have at least one underlying condition making them at-risk for complications from COVID-19 infection, we all have loved ones that we need to protect from infection.

And as the tourist season begins, COVID-19 will become increasingly present in our communities. Face coverings are one small tool to help protect ourselves, our workers, and our communities.