Cape Town – As more transmissible variants of the coronavirus, first identified in the UK and South Africa, make their way around the globe, White House adviser Dr Anthony Fauci has endorsed wearing two masks for better protection.
The practice generated discussion when people were seen wearing two masks at Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president last Wednesday. Among others, poet Amanda Gorman and Pete Buttigieg, who is Biden’s nominee to run the Transportation Department, wore surgical masks underneath cloth masks.
Fauci said on NBC News’s Today show yesterday: “If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective. That’s the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N-95.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that people wear masks that have “two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric”, face masks can block up to 70 percent of coronavirus particles.
In a commentary in the journal Med, medical experts recommended wearing at least a “high-quality surgical mask or a fabric mask of at least two layers with a high thread count.”
But they added that wearing a cloth mask tightly on top of a surgical mask could provide even more protection.
In places where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing, such as on an aeroplane or at the store, two masks would provide additional protection, the researchers said. The next best option would be a three-layer mask that contains an inner filter.
Dr Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recommends a multilayered single mask that fits comfortably and snug over your nose and mouth, npr.org reported.
Karan and other mask experts also look for two or three layers in a mask. Some masks, for example, come with an interior pocket where you can insert a filter. So that adds up to three layers in one face covering.
“If you have a face mask that’s thin, flimsy, falling apart, frayed, or if you put it up to a light and you see light coming through it, it might be helpful to wear another one on top of it,” Dr Abisola Olulade, MD, a family medicine physician told Refinery29.
Dr Scott Segal, MD and chair of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, agreed, telling Health: “Wearing two masks might be a reasonable idea if the filtration capability of the masks aren’t very strong.”
Two is better than one and three is even better, says biosecurity expert Raina MacIntyre, who researches mask effectiveness at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
However, she guards against the pitfalls to piling on masks. You may be more tempted to fiddle with the additional mask, and that’s a bad idea if you’re in a place where other people have been hanging out and possibly spreading contagious droplets, MacIntyre said.
More importantly, while a second (or third) mask will create a more effective barrier for outgoing and incoming particles, it will also make it harder to breathe in the air you need.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Dr Leonard Krilov, MD, chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at NYU Langone Hospital in Long Island, told Health.
’’An extra barrier may sound like a good idea, but that extra layer may make it more difficult to breathe, making it more likely that you pull on the mask to breathe better and not keep it adequately in place.”
But double layering doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Public health officials say the general public should still use social distancing practices, wash their hands regularly and avoid gathering indoors.