GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — An infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health is urging people in West Michigan to wear a mask to help the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Despite political controversy surrounding masks in public, Dr. Liam Sullivan says masks are our best line of defense when trying to get back to normal.

“I get where people come from, they don’t want to be told what to do,” Sullivan told News 8. “But I try to tell people, try to keep perspective that this virus doesn’t care about individual mandates. Doesn’t care what political party you belong to. Doesn’t care what your religion is, your sex is, your height, your weight, et cetera. Its number one desire in life is to replicate and it will pick any available human host to replicate, and a mask is one way we can get back to some sense of normalcy in our society.”

Sullivan spoke with News 8 after the Grand Rapids region moved to a higher risk phase on the state’s dashboard this week. 

The change comes as new coronavirus cases have forced restaurants and other businesses to close back down in the area. 

Sullivan said he hears three main arguments against medically-able people wearing a mask in public: It cuts down on oxygen, it increases the risk for bacterial infections and a mask weakens the immune system.

“It’s completely false that wearing a mask limits the amount of oxygen you get into your lungs and causes a buildup of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in your lungs — Neither one of those is the case,” the infectious disease specialist explained, adding that medical professionals have always worn masks for the duration of their work day.

“I don’t see them passing out from CO2 narcosis or problems due to lack of oxygen at all,” Sullivan said. 

He also said the bacterial argument is false by pointing to the somewhat gross reality that bacteria lives in our mouth. 

“We have millions of bacteria that live in our mouth and in our throat and in our respiratory track. They are there all the time. Putting a mask on or off absolutely has no influence on them and how they affect us,” the doctor explained. 

Sullivan said the other most-common argument is that masks hurt one’s immune system.

That may be the case if you had to keep one on 100% of the time, but experts are only asking they be worn in enclosed buildings or crowded public spaces. 

“When you’re out walking your dog in the neighborhood, you probably don’t need to wear a mask because you’re not going to be around anybody and easily maintain distancing,” Sullivan said. “In that situation you’re getting plenty of exposure to the outdoor air, thus your immune system is doing its job. So a mask has no affect on the immune system whatsoever one way or the other.”

He pointed to Japan as an example of the effectiveness of face masks. The country has recorded less than 18,750 COVID-19 cases and less than 1,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

For context, more than 126 million people live in Japan. Nearly 10 million live in Michigan, yet the state has recorded more than 64,132 cases and 5,951 deaths as of Wednesday.

“They’ve had a fraction of the cases that we’ve had and they have not had to shut down society or their economy at all. One of the reasons? Everybody in Japan wears a mask,” Sullivan explained. “Now, I know that’s a cultural thing and the Japanese culture is very different than our culture. I get that, but that is a vivid example of something that people have universally accepted and adopted.”

A study published earlier this week by researchers at Florida Atlantic University tested the effectiveness of different mask styles, giving visual examples of how far droplets can spread in the air based on different or no barriers.

Six feet is the recommended space for social distancing, but the study found cough or sneeze droplets can travel 6 or more feet if the person is not wearing a mask. That distance dropped dramatically, to just 2.5 inches, with a stitched quilted cotton mask.