As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the country, federal health officials are now urging Americans to consider double masking, revealing new research that shows the practice offers significantly better protection against COVID-19.
In a Wednesday report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention broke down two mask methods that are far more effective for both the wearers and those around them. One recommendation is to wear two masks—or a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask—which could reduce exposure to virus-related aerosols by more than 90 percent, the CDC said. A second option is knotting a mask’s ear loops and tucking in the sides to ensure a snug fit.
“Any mask is better than no mask. Wearing a mask protects you and everyone in your community,” John T. Brooks, medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 response and co-author of Wednesday’s report, told The Daily Beast. “The data released by CDC today underscore the importance of wearing a mask correctly and making sure that it fits closely over your nose and mouth.”
The report states that when tested in a lab, two dummies wearing a closely fitted surgical mask or two masks had reduced exposure to infectious aerosols by 95 percent. In a “simulated breathing” experiment, a three-ply surgical mask alone blocked only about 42 percent of particles from a simulated cough. A three-ply cloth mask blocked about 44 percent of particles.
Surgical masks contain polypropylene, a material that can create a small electric charge to capture viral particles, but gaps from improperly fitted face coverings allow particles to sneak in, making them less effective.
“All masks are not all created equal and there are several ways to improve your masks, from looping your ear loops tighter to having a nose wire on your masks,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in infectious diseases told The Daily Beast. “Double-masking is one option to ensure that people who are wearing bandanas or other non-adequate masks are accurately protecting themselves and others.”
In another experiment, two face coverings on a dummy near an unmasked individual reduced their exposure by 83 percent. Just “knotting and tucking” the surgical mask also reduces a masked person’s exposure by about 64.5 percent. While both individuals wearing masks is ideal to curtail the spread, the report notes that if only one person is wearing a mask, they should wear a cloth mask over a single surgical mask that’s been knotted and tucked.
“Until vaccine-induced population immunity is achieved, universal masking is a highly effective means to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2** when combined with other protective measures, such as physical distancing, avoiding crowds, and poorly ventilated indoor spaces, and good hand hygiene,” the report states. “Innovative efforts to improve the fit of cloth and medical procedure masks to enhance their performance merit attention.”
The new recommendation comes as President Joe Biden has urged all Americans to wear masks, signing several executive orders just days after assuming office to mandate face coverings on federal property and some forms of public transportation. According to a tally by AARP, at least 36 states currently mandate that residents must wear face coverings in public to curtail the spread of the deadly virus.
To date, nearly 470,000 Americans have died and 27.2 million have been infected with the deadly virus, which continues to pummel the country amid a sluggish vaccine rollout.
Brooks said Wednesday that the main takeaway from the new guidelines is about better mask fit and ensuring that proper filtration is occurring for both parties when social distancing is impossible. He noted that the CDC’s report is focused less on the material of masks, and more on their fit.
“We know that universal masking works. And now these variants are circulating…whatever we can do to improve the fit of a mask to make it work better, the faster we can end this pandemic,” he said. “Double masking is one way you can do it, it may not be the right solution for everybody.”
Brooks cautioned against generalizing the report’s findings, noting that the experiments only used one type of cotton mask and one type of medical mask in a secured lab and “not with human beings.”
“When added to staying at least 6 feet apart from people you don’t live with, avoiding crowds and travel, and washing your hands, wearing masks is critical to slow transmission while the nation increases population-based immunity with vaccines,” he added to The Daily Beast.