We’ve been discussing masks since March of 2020. As I write this sentence, we are a stone’s throw away from marking a full year since masks became a general part of living. And yet, there are still many people, politicians included, who want to debate their effectiveness in fighting COVID-19.
I’ll admit, when this all started, wearing a mask… well… it was uncomfortable. I didn’t really enjoy it. But now, it’s just a thing I wear when I leave the house, same as I might a hat or a jacket. And now, we are entering a new phase of the virus, with new variants that are more contagious. We are in a race to get people vaccinated before COVID-19 can mutate beyond what the vaccine can help. So right now is the time to stop the debate, and up our mask game.
This is not just some online dude spouting off about masks. According to The Washington Post, European countries have asked their citizens to ditch the cloth masks, and upgrade to medical coverings because of more contagious variations of the virus. Just last week, Germany made it mandatory for anyone riding on public transit or visiting a grocery store to wear an N95 mask or a surgical mask. Cloth coverings are not going to cut it anymore. Austria made a similar announcement earlier this week. France is now urging their citizens to stop wearing cloth masks, and to consider using a N95 or surgical grade mask.
And in a more recent article from the Post, public health experts in the U.S. are (finally) urging the public to do the same, though the CDC has yet to update its official guidelines. “Some experts say it is time to buy the highest-quality KN95 or N95 masks that officials hoping to reserve supplies for health-care workers have long discouraged Americans from purchasing,” notes writer Fenit Nirappil.
Most of these new changes are a result of the new more contagious variants — from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa — that are making their way around the world. According to a recent article in VOX, the issue is the new variants have a much larger viral load when someone becomes infected, meaning that when a person infected with a variant sneezes, talks, coughs, breathes… they are shedding much more virus, making the risk of infecting others higher. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch described it this way, “In less than two weeks, you get twice the number of cases. And in a month or so, you have four, five times as many cases.”
Right now, with the virus becoming more contagious, the best thing we can do is better utilize the self-protective tools we have. And one of the best tools in our bag is, you guessed it, a mask. The gold standard, according to experts, is the N95 mask. In August, Duke University took a deep look at the effectiveness of masks, and top of the list was the N95 (the difference between the N95 and KN95 masks are in their certifications; N95s meet U.S. standards, while KN95s meet Chinese standards, though they provide similar protective properties). Second were surgical masks. And third were cotton masks with multiple layers of fabric. Now, to put this into percentages, the N95 filters out 95% of large and small particles that could lead to infection. With a homemade cloth mask, that percentage can go down to as low as 26%.
Now let’s think about this. If you went into a room with someone who you knew was infected with COVID-19, and you could choose to have a 5% chance of contracting the virus, or a 74% chance of contracting the virus, which mask would you choose? I don’t want to speak for all of you, but a 74% chance sounds pretty scary to me, and I’d feel A LOT safer with an N95. And naturally, things get more complicated when you factor in that the variants are around 50% more contagious.
All of this comes down to finding a way to prevent this virus from getting into your body, and to keep you from giving the virus to others. COVID-19 is a sneaky sucker, no doubt about it. And there is always the risk of others walking around and not showing symptoms yet, or having a full blown case and being asymptomatic. So you can’t really judge someone on their appearance, and if you need to go out, make sure that you are doing the best you can to protect yourself and others. That all adds up to wearing the best mask — or masks — possible.
Just a few days ago, White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci advised that if you can’t get an N95 or a surgical mask, consider double masking, (i.e., wearing two masks at once): “[I]f 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 N95.”
In The Washington Post, Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr advised that folks can make their own three-layer masks by cutting a filter (such as a vacuum cleaner bag) small enough to wear in between two snug-fitting fabric masks.
Listen folks, we can do this. We can beat this virus. We have a vaccine. It’s rolling out slowly, but it’s moving. In the meantime, though, we need to maximize the tools we have. So do your part, and up your mask game as if lives depend on it — because they do.
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.