As we head into the fall and winter months, we should all make sure to avail ourselves of the prime COVID-19-fighting tool at our disposal.


Masks.


Yep, masks are an incredibly valuable part of our arsenal, and we can’t lose sight of the fact. The most valuable way to battle the virus is to have no contact with other people in our daily lives, but that’s difficult (and painful) to accomplish. Coupling masks with social distancing when possible should be everyone’s goal.


First and most clearly, they protect others from possible infection by you. Masks prevent wearers from exhaling viruses or germs into the open air. But how effective are masks at protecting from infection by others? Pretty darn effective, according to researchers. According to the journal "Nature" this month: "In a review of observational studies, an international research team estimates that surgical and comparable cloth masks are 67% effective in protecting the wearer."


No, that’s not 100%. But a two-thirds reduction in transmission is nothing to sneeze at.


What’s more, "Nature" says: "The work also points to another potentially game-changing idea: ‘Masking may not only protect you from infection but also from severe illness,’ says Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco."


The theory is fairly simple. Masks can reduce the number of virus particles inhaled if someone infectious is nearby. That could mean that wearers — even if infected — have much milder or asymptomatic cases.


Masks offer at least three levels of protection, then. They prevent infected folks from spreading the virus. They prevent uninfected folks from catching it. And if a handful of people do become infected while wearing masks, the barriers could mean they have an easier course of infection.


Like most health measures, though, masks work best when used universally. Protecting yourself is great. But reducing and eliminating community spread is the goal.


The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine has gamed out the next few months. Its projections for Kansas show that universal mask wearing could save 855 lives by late February. Wouldn’t you wear a mask to literally save the lives of your fellow Kansans?


Much about this pandemic remains uncertain. The months ahead have the potential to be difficult. But we know more about the virus now than we did, and we know without question that masks are a vital tool for every single one of us.