How many masks are enough?

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s study has found that double masking can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the agency stopped short of recommending that all Americans double-mask when out in public.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the science proved a “well-fitting mask provides the best performance,” and the addition of a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask not only adds an extra layer of material to filter out particles, but also helps to ensure that the surgical mask is more tightly fitting.

How well it fits is key for mask effectiveness. Although double masking may provide the most protection, public health officials are still focused on simply getting Americans to wear one mask.

Some people cannot wear a mask because of legitimate underlying health conditions. Others refrain from wearing it due to the constant buildup of carbon dioxide, which may pose a health risk. Conflicting information has also led some to believe that wearing a mask doesn’t protect the wearer from COVID-19 at all, due to the extremely small size of the COVID-19 particle vs. the porousness of a typical mask, surgical mask or even an N95 mask. 

To get to the bottom of this, researchers at the University of Edinburgh conducted a study using a particle counter, while piping exhaust from a diesel generator through different common masks. The particle counter they used measured particles as small as 0.0007 microns, which is over 10 times smaller than the COVID-19 particle.  They found surgical masks were able to capture 80% of the particles. 

In another study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers shot actual virus particles at N95 masks and the masks captured over 95% of the virus particles.

Kelly Daly, director of the Student Health Center at Orange Coast College, explained that OCC follows the guidelines coming from the county. The county in turn, follows guidelines coming from the California Department of Public Health, who follow guidelines from the CDC. 

While double masking is an option, Daly offered other tips that include students considering their own risk levels, such as whether they are in a high-risk setting, have comorbidities, or if they have some immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection.

“Don’t layer two surgical masks – they aren’t designed for that,” Daly said.  

She recommended regularly cleaning masks and for students to not touch the outside of their mask and then their face. Set the used mask aside, let it breath for 24-48 hours, and throw away any single-use disposable masks.

“The critical aspect is social distancing, six feet plus a mask, good hand washing and paying attention to your own symptoms,” Daly said.

Many people feel that asking others to wear double masks is simply asking too much, and may ultimately undermine the effort to get people to wear a mask at all. 

“I feel like it makes sense that the double masking would have a benefit if people were wearing masks correctly in the first place. Double masking might be asking a lot of people and in theory, I understand yes, it would go to 95% but I don’t think it would be as successful in practice because every day you see those who are wearing the one mask they have incorrectly,” said Angelique Mordell, an OCC integrative health student.

“It’s like wearing a condom,” she said. “In theory, it should protect us 99% of the time. In practice…it doesn’t always work out like that.”

Part of the reason that double masking works so well is that it helps to create a tighter seal on the inner mask. The CDC has put forth guidelines on how to select a mask. It suggests that people choose a mask with a nose wire that fits snugly against the sides of your face and has two or more breathable layers of fabric.

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