As new COVID-19 variants emerge that are potentially more contagious, specialists say that masks are more important than ever because they will lower the spread of the virus regardless of the variant.
“The variants do not affect the type of mask you need to wear. It does affect the importance of wearing a mask and ensuring that you have a good fit,” Dr. Stanley Weiss, epidemiologist and professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Rutgers School of Public Health, told ABC News.
They key, experts say, is to wear a mask that fits well, and wear it consistently. In some cases, this could mean wearing an extra mask if it’s tolerable, but for most it’s not necessary. So keep it simple and make sure your mask completely covers you mouth and nose and keep it on when you can’t adequately distance
“The critical issue is that many people are not wearing the mask correctly. Some people have a mask which drops down from their nose,” Weiss said. “They also need a mask which fits well along the nose to get a tight seal. If you feel air escaping or if your glasses are fogging up from your mask, it’s not fitting well, and in those situations, using a second mask to get a tighter seal might make more sense.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a mask should completely cover your nose and mouth, fit snugly against the sides of your face, doesn’t have gaps, and has two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric.
America’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the CDC recommendations are crystal clear.
“What they’re saying is: ‘You know what would be a good start? If everybody wears at least one mask,'” Fauci said in an interview on Fox News Wednesday. “I think that would be important.”
Widespread vaccinations, constant airflow and people spread out more than 6 feet would all have a huge impact in slowing the virus spread, including the new variants, and masks are part of that plan, too.
“It’s not a perfect solution to the pandemic, but the value of mask use has been proven over and over,” said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, Manhasset. “The CDC continues to recommend use of face coverings that have two-three layers of washable, breathable fabric.”
Two or three layers of fabric that fits snuggly against your face is better than a loose-fitting bandana or a DIY pattern you had left over from the drapes.
Still, some experts are suggesting more is more.
“There is some suggestion that wearing a double mask, which you saw certainly a lot in full display in the inauguration, may offer better protection,” ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said on “Good Morning America” this week. “You have to balance that with being actually able to breathe.”
Dr. Michael Calderwood, an infectious disease doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said what’s most important is sticking to the plan: consistent mask use.
“Increasing the number of masks either by layering something on top of another mask or wearing N95 masks on another mask leads to a lot of shifting the masks, touching the mask, removing the mask, and is going to be counterproductive,” Calderwood said.
An N95 mask filters 95% of airborne particles and, if worn correctly, it is the gold standard, but it is not recommended for the average person because there is a shortage and comes with some requirements to make them work.
“N95s are respirators and are ‘fit tested’ for health care workers and are used in COVID-19 patients for aerosol-generating procedures. They can be uncomfortable if worn for long periods of time,” said Dr. Rachel Lee, assistant professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The key to proper mask choices is striking a balance between comfort, fit and filtration level.
“Wearing an appropriate mask with a proper fit has been effective to this point in the pandemic and will continue to be effective,” said Dr. John O’Horo, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic. “If a mask doesn’t’ fit properly, for example, if it’s loose around the nose, you’re better off getting a mask with a nose wire to help with the seal than an N95 mask.”
Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program and an associate professor at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, agrees with the CDC recommendations but also said to consider other risk factors, like whether or not you are outdoors or indoors. “If you’re going for a walk with a friend outside, then a two-layer mask or a three-layer mask is just fine. If you’re an essential worker, or you find yourself indoors for long periods of time, then you’re going to want to find a mask that has a higher level of protection, a minimum, three-layer surgical mask.”
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