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How to Mask Up in 2021

By Olivia Haveron

As we draw near the year anniversary of the Coronavirus pandemic - if it's even worth calling it an anniversary - we continue to mask up every day to protect ourselves and those around us from getting sick. Now, with a more contagious variant spreading rapidly, and already found in at least 28 states, mask guidance is cracking down and changing almost as quickly. The conversation about which mask is the right barrier is often conflicting and confusing. So what truly is the right mask to wear in 2021?

To start, the concept of wearing a medical grade mask or N95 comes at the necessity of providing healthcare workers with the proper PPE to care for patients. Anthony Harris, MD, MPH, believes that if we had the supply to begin with at the start of the pandemic, that would have been the initial recommendation. Even though there is a constraint on supply in the US still, there are enough supplies set aside that there shouldn't be a worry of depleting healthcare.

Even though the US has been seeing some more difficulty enforcing this type of mask mandate, European countries such as Germany, France, and Austria - just to name a few - now require medical-grade masks to be worn in public places. Germany decided last week that people will be required to wear either FFP1(surgical masks) or FFP2 (filtering facepiece respirators or fabric masks that meet specifications) in all public places meaning that the homemade masks will no longer be allowed.

The issue with cloth masks is that they can be a hit or miss in regards to how protective they truly are. Their efficacy depends directly on the number of layers of fabric and the type of fabric used, with most not actually having any sort of safety rating. Obviously wearing a cloth mask is better than no mask, but France’s health advisory council argued that they may not offer sufficient protection against new variants.

But if it isn’t possible to wear medical-level masks, some experts are saying that it might be time to double down by doubling up. Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, states: “Multiple layers of fabric are likely to provide better protection than a single layer does. Single-layer masks are easy to find and it is easy to double them up.” Additionally, wearing two masks helps to better fit a person’s face, without any sort of gaps.

Without a medical-grade face covering, people can get the best and simplest protection by wearing a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask. Compare it to the COVID vaccine itself: the two doses of the vaccine are recommended in order to truly emphasize a complete protection against the virus. And masks have that same protection, especially if your mask of choice has no true safety grade.

But why wear two masks now in comparison to one? Science is always evolving. The one mask was used to protect against the initial strand of COVID. However, as the disease continues to change, we must change our ways as well, whether that means wearing a surgical mask, N95, or doubling up on the cloth ones. It’s important to acknowledge that wearing a mask isn’t forever; it’s a necessary, but temporary, measure to defeat this pandemic.


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