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GPB's Ellen Eldridge reports on what experts at Emory University are saying about coronavirus transmission and face masks.

A woman wearing a mask due to coronavirus concerns walks by a public library, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass.
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A woman wearing a mask due to coronavirus concerns walks by a public library, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass.

If you're going out to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, wear a mask. If you want to save the economy and prevent the need for shutting down the state again, wear a mask.

That was the takeaway Wednesday from top health officials at Emory who were emphatic that masks should be mandatory.

"Saving lives is not a partisan issue," Dr. Jon Lewin, CEO of Emory Healthcare, said at a news conference. "It's simply practical and it's compassionate."

Public health and economic recovery do not have to be at odds. Wearing a mask, Lewin said, is the best way for people to significantly reduce spread of COVID-19 in Georgia even as businesses reopen.

"Our universally masking is the simplest thing we can do to keep our economic recovery moving forward," he said.

Lewin was joined by Emory's Dr. Carlos del Rio, one of the state's top infectious disease doctors. Del Rio launched a tweetstorm in recent days about Georgians needing to wear masks.  

"The best way to show compassion is actually to wear a mask," del Rio told reporters. "If I care, I wear a mask."

The comments came as Gov. Brian Kemp began a tour of the state encouraging — but not requiring — face masks.

MORE: Kemp Implores – But Doesn’t Require – Georgians To Wear A Mask As COVID-19 Cases Keep Rising

Savannah became the first Georgia city to mandate wearing masks. And while Lewin said he isn't an expert in affecting political change, places that require masks have higher rates of compliance.

"Whatever our elected leaders can do to increase the compliance with masking, whatever our elected leaders can do to decrease the partisanship that's currently seen around masking, the more likely we are to get through this without seeing more economic damage," Lewin said.

The current trend shows exponential growth in new coronavirus cases. About 90% of Emory's COVID-19 patients leave the hospital alive now, Lewin said, but that might not be the case in a few weeks.

"We have plenty of capacity today," Lewin said. "But what we've seen from experience in March and April (is that) there's a two- to three-week delay between cases increasing and hospitalizations. So, the fact that we've had such marked increases in the state of Georgia and in the nation over the past week or two means that over the next three to four weeks, we're going to see an even higher surge in our health care systems."

A national mandate for Americans to wear face masks could save almost 5% of gross domestic product, according to an analysis from Goldman Sachs.

“We find that face masks are associated with significantly better coronavirus outcomes,” the investment bank said in a report distributed to clients. “A face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP.”

More than anything, the doctors want people to make masks the norm and not a political statement.

Experts' understanding of the novel coronavirus has changed since March and April, when it was believed people became infected from touching contaminated surfaces. Now, public health officials understand people are spreading COVID-19 in the community asymptomatically.

"We've learned in our own hospital that when we simply strongly encouraged face masks, we still saw community spread," Lewin said. "When we required masks, we saw our infection rates within our workforce plummet to near zero."

When everyone wears a mask, transmission is reduced by 75% or more.

"I like to say my mask protects you, your mask protects me, and our masks together protect economic recovery, because the one thing none of us want to see is another lockdown," Lewin said.