Since early this year, the public has learned much more about the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. 

The back and forth about the best way to treat and prevent COVID-19 is, in some ways, a chance for the public to watch science in real time. 

“It’s also what medicine looks like in real time,” said Dr. Gregory Holzman, the chief medical officer at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. “We’re always doing risk-benefit analyses.”

One example is with masks. In the early days of the pandemic, the general public was not encouraged to wear them. That’s changed now for a few reasons, Holzman believes. 

For one, there are now more masks available, after people began making homemade cloth masks at home. The prevalence of COVID-19 in many communities in the United States has also increased, which makes wearing a mask much more effective, Holzman said.

“What we know a heck of a lot more about is that with people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic,” said Holzman, referring to relatively new knowledge that people infected with COVID-19 can spread coronavirus before they exhibit symptoms. 

The public may also have been thinking a lot more about the size of microscopic particles, and which types of material can provide a barrier. 

“When you cough or sneeze, a lot of the stuff [that is expelled] is larger droplets, and a cloth mask will do a decent job of preventing those large water droplets from escaping the mask,” explained Dr. Tony Ward, professor and chair of the School of Public and Community Health Sciences at the University of Montana.

While viruses, including the coronavirus, are much smaller than the water droplets, they like to stay moist, so water droplets that are expended from the nose and mouth when talking or breathing are perfect ecosystems for viruses looking for new hosts to infect.

Cloth masks can act as drying environments for the virus and kill it, Holzman said.

Finally, as the public has watched COVID-19 cases climb, level off, and climb again, issues of statistics and epidemiology have come to the fore as well. 

While testing capacity has improved in the state of Montana, that increased testing does not account for the increase in cases, Holzman said. 

Improved contact tracing and testing of those contacts has increased the total number of tests performed on Montanans, but the positivity rate has climbed too.

“Even taking into consideration [the increased testing], the sheer number of cases we have has increased beyond that fact,” Holzman explained. 

“We’re having a lot more first cases. Another avenue we look at to get an estimate of how much might be out there is the positivity rate, which is, of all the testing you’re doing, what percentage is coming back positive? And our positivity rate is starting to go up some,” he said.

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