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Do face masks really slow the spread of COVID-19?

All the medical experts insist masks slow the spread of the coronavirus, so 13 Investigates conducted its own simple experiment to put masks to the test.

INDIANAPOLIS — Are face masks really worth the money, the inconvenience and insults that sometimes go with wearing them? And what about opponents who claim the masks are useless and infringe on their freedom? 

All the medical experts insist the masks slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Who’s right? 13 Investigates conducted its own simple experiment and came up with some startling -- and yes, disgusting results.

To wear or not to wear a face mask is probably the most contentious question in the war against COVID-19.

In a North Hollywood, California grocery store, a cell phone video shows a customer being berated for not wearing a mask.

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“That man harassed me for not wearing a face mask,” she shouted at the camera as they rushed from the store. “I have a breathing problem.”

In Florida, after the Palm Beach County Commissioners voted to make masks mandatory in public places, some people were outraged. 

“You disgust me,” a man yelled after the vote. “You did not listen to we the people.”

But a lot of people like Julia Spalding speak softly. 

“I would like to have fewer new cases of COVID,” Spalding said, talking through her face mask.

Are paper and cloth really strong enough to slow the spread of the seemingly unstoppable coronavirus? To find out, 13 Investigates went to the IU Health pathology lab. 

At IU Health, lab technicians examine hundreds of specimens every day looking for infections and diseases. 

Dr. Ryan Relich is the lab’s assistant medical director. 

“What we have here are three culture platelets that you will be coughing into,” he explained. 

Dr. Relich is a medical biologist and an infectious disease expert. 

“Hold it about four inches from your mouth just give it the old college try," he instructed. 

So without wearing any mask, I coughed three times into the first dish, spewing an invisible biological mess.

Credit: WTHR
Rich Van Wyk coughs into a petri dish while wearing a homemade face mask.

“Every time you breath or cough or sneeze an aerosol of saliva mucus membrane secretions are basically flying out of your mouth and nose,” Dr. Relich explained.

Before picking up the second petri dish, I put on a homemade face mask. My wife Juli has sewn more than 100 of them.

Again, I coughed three times into the dish. The cloth mask should at least catch many of the biological particles flying out of my mouth.

“They contain bacteria. They contain virus particles and other things.” Dr. Relich said.

For the final test, I wore one of the familiar disposal face masks that a lot of people and medical professions use every day. Three more coughs and I’m done.

If a mask can stop the normally occurring bacteria in your body, the likelihood is they stop COVID-19? 

“Yeah there is a very good chance,” Relich said.

We put the petri dishes in an incubator set at a normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees. Days later, we opened them up to see the results. 

Even a scientifically impaired reporter like me could spot the difference.

Much of the dish was covered with disgustingly looking, little dots, growing colonies of bacteria.

Credit: Rich Van Wyk
Petri dish results from coughing experiment.

“These are germs I coughed up?” 

“Yes,” Dr. Relich said. 

“And if I had the COVID virus?” 

“Yes, it would be transplanted there.” he replied. 

Next up the dish I coughed into wearing a reusable homemade mask. It was almost spotless. There was just one single small colony of bacteria. 

“Basically, the reusable did a very good job,” Dr. Relich said.

The results from the disposable mask were even better. The petri dish was completely clean, not even single spot of bacteria. 

“It stopped the germs in my mouth from getting into the petri dish?” 

“Correct,” the doctor replied. "Or under normal circumstances, someone else’s face."

According to Dr. Relich, the results of our little experiment are in line with new information researchers are finding about the spread of COVID-19. 

“That suggests when two people are interacting and are both wearing masks, the chances of coronavirus transmission decrease down to 1.5 percent.” Dr. Relich explained.

In the increasing debate over whether face masks make a difference in the battle against COVID-19, the proof is in the petri dishes.