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3News Investigates: Is the face mask debate finally over?

Ohio's COVID-19 caseload has dipped 30% since Gov. DeWine's mask mandate.

CLEVELAND — Few things have come to symbolize the country’s divide on COVID-19 quite like masks.

While some have come see face coverings as a smart safeguard, a gesture of awareness and a necessity supported by science, others have claimed it’s a useless, fruitless move, with little effect based on limited scientific proof.

It’s been a source of debate almost since the outset of the pandemic, as prominent experts vacillated on masks and their ability to protect from the coronavirus. President Trump, in fact, resisted for months being seen in public with a face covering.

MORE COVERAGE: wkyc.com/coronavirus-covid-19 

"There are different people who do things for different reasons," Lorain County Health Commissioner David Covell says.

But as more experts studied the science, masks are now considered a necessity by most. It wasn’t that way in April, when Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statewide mask mandate. The order lasted only a day as DeWine succumbed to critics.

That all changed shortly after the state's lockdown orders were being lifted in May. Cases in June spiked dramatically, and continued to rise into July.

So, after limited mask orders in certain hot-spot counties, DeWine went all-in as the state was seeing over 1,400 cases on average per day. On July 23, he issued a statewide mandate to stem the rising coronavirus cases.

The results? A more than a 30% drop in COVID-19 cases, down to around 930 per day on average.

Hospitalizations have fallen as well, while testing has remained steady. In all, Ohio now has more than 117,000 cases and 4,044 deaths related to the virus.

Covell and others who spoke to 3News Investigates credit earlier bar closings as well as the mask mandate, which produced greater public awareness and acceptance.

"We had some people that were wearing masks because we told them, 'Hey, that's how you care for your neighbors. Wear a mask,'" he said. "Others really needed a mandate to say 'Tell me to wear a mask,' and they wore a mask. Others won't wear a mask no matter what you do."

Dr. Thomas File, who specializes in infectious disease for Summa and NEOMED, also says masks coupled with fewer gatherings and better distancing have helped ease the caseload. But, like others, he's fearful of the potential of a resurgence as schools reopen and more people are leaving their homes.

"I think [masks] are an important aspect, in addition obviously to reducing distancing and importantly reducing mass gatherings," he says. "I think that has been a major problem particularly earlier in the summer."

Across the nation, states and local counties who installed mask mandates and other restrictions have also witnessed a reduction in cases. Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health, credited the governor’s mandate on masks for putting a dent into the caseload.

"While we can’t directly prove that the mask mandate was the cause of the decline in cases, there is strong evidence from the CDC that wearing masks and social distancing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19," she said. "After the mask orders went into effect [originally in the red counties], cases began to level off and eventually decline."

One of those red-level counties for much of the past four weeks was Cuyahoga County. Terry Allan, who heads Cuyahoga County’s health department, agrees masks made a difference. Most importantly, he said, was the public accepting the concept and buying into the science that masks do in fact help stop the spread.

"We feel that the mask mandate has been an important policy decision that has reduced the potential for COVID-19 transmission in the community," he said. "It is anticipated that the mask mandate will also reduce the risk for influenza transmission as we enter the fall flu season."

He also urged residents to not grow complacent with the current downward trend.

"As we continue to move through our communities every day, it is critical that we continue to wear masks to protect ourselves and others. Whether at school, work, the grocery store or next door at the neighbor’s house, masks are essential to prevention.

"Along with masks, we remind everyone to practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene, to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, and to screen yourself every day for symptoms before leaving home."