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Masks 2.0: our pandemic protectors need an upgrade

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COVID-19 is mutating to more contagious variants, difficult to contain with the care strategies used so far. Therefore, some countries are requiring citizens to wear medical grade masks in shops and public transport; they know it’s risky to continue using only fabric ones. What do the experts say?

As already known, the correct use of masks prevents saliva and moisture particles coming out of our mouth and nose from reaching other people. It is important to remember, because those particles are the ones that could have the viral load of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that generates COVID-19. It is important because using them reduces the transmission of the virus.

However, in the face of new strains of coronavirus, countries such as Germany and Austria are replacing cloth masks with medical ones. Experts are recommending using tight surgical masks, a cloth mask over a surgical mask, multi-layered fabric masks with a non-woven filter, or a well-fitting N95 mask.

“A surgical mask is better than a cloth mask, a tight-fitting surgical mask is better than a loose mask, and an N95 is better than a surgical mask,” Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This advice applies especially to those wearing single-layer fabric masks, handkerchiefs or loose-fitting masks, which offer the least protection to the wearer and those around them, he explained. 

Masks, how good are they?

Although the use of cloth masks reduce the risk of contagion and being infected – because they block the particles that we expel – it is already known that there are other masks that protect more and better, such as N95. 

Well-adjusted N95s block at least 95% of small airborne particles, including particles up to three-tenths of a micron in diameter – coronavirus is about 0.1 microns in diameter, and can be transported in aerosols less than 5 microns and larger droplets; not so the fabric ones. Even surgical masks block more particles than cloth masks, although less than N95s.

However, according to the CDC, they warn that multi-layered fabric masks with a high number of threads consistently outperform single-layer masks with a lower number of thread count, both in terms of wearer protection and people around them. In some cases, these higher-quality cloth masks can filter out nearly 50% of fine particles less than 1 micron. 

However, in the face of the more contagious new variants of COVID-19, the use of fabric masks and surgical ones would seem to be not enough.

What mask to wear in front of the new COVID-19 variants?

Early data suggest that variant B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK, and the strain first identified in South Africa — variant 501.V2 or B.1.351— are 50% to 74% more contagious than other dominant strains.

Because these variants are more transmissible than the previous ones, experts have recommended “doubling” the use of masks; means carrying one on top of each other. As explained, the cloth mask improves the fit of the surgical mask, while the surgical mask acts as an additional filter.

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