The Best Mask to Protect You From the U.K. COVID Strain, Doctor Says
The highly contagious variant means that your old mask is probably falling short.
When news of a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in the U.K. broke in December, medical experts began warning about its contagiousness, which is 50 percent higher than the current dominant strain in the U.S. However, the CDC released a report on Jan. 15 projecting that this more transmissible form of COVID from the U.K. could become the dominant strain stateside by March. That's why it's now more important than ever to adhere to the basic public health guidelines that have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic. Of course, this includes avoiding crowds, social distancing in public, and regular hand-washing. But the new highly transmissible COVID strain from the U.K. also requires paying more attention to your face mask—and your current go-to option may not protect you the best against this contagious new strain.
With the U.K. variant now reported in a dozen states, experts are suggesting that the public take a harder look at their PPE decisions. “The fact that [the variants] are so infectious suggests to me having a better mask is a good idea,” Tom Frieden, MD, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Vox. Read on to see his ranking of face masks from least to most effective, and for where the U.K. strain is thus far in the U.S., check out The New COVID Strain Is Now in These States.
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Ever since everyday face coverings became the norm, non-medical-grade masks, whether DIY or designer, have flooded the market. And while they're still effective at stopping the spread of the virus to others, the highly contagious nature of the latest strain makes them ill-equipped for protecting the wearer from inhaling virus particles themselves.
As Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard point out in an article in the Atlantic: "Construction, materials, and fit matter, and these can’t be tracked or certified with homemade masks." But they also recommend an easy fix, as "cloth masks can be upgraded with a nose wire (for fit) and a filter insert—and more than 100,000 types of these masks are available on Etsy."
Julie Swann, PhD, a professor at North Carolina State University who has studied COVID-19 mask effectiveness, told Vox that tight, well-fitting DIY masks with more than one layer are better than single-layer cloth masks—which can also be achieved by doubling them up. And for the best way to stay safe, know that you should Stop Doing This Immediately to Avoid the New COVID Strain, Doctors Warn.
According to Freiden, "a surgical mask is better than a cloth mask." A surgical mask is defined by the Mayo Clinic as "a loose-fitting disposable mask that protects the wearer's nose and mouth from contact with droplets, splashes, and sprays that may contain germs" and "also filters out large particles in the air." While the regulation of materials makes them a safer bet than a homemade mask made of unapproved material, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still "has not approved any type of surgical mask specifically for protection against the coronavirus." And for more ways to stay safe, check out These 3 Things Could Prevent Almost All COVID Cases, Study Finds.
Properly-fitted surgical masks
While surgical masks are superior to cloth ones, Frieden specified to Vox that "a tight-fitting surgical mask is better than a loose-fitting mask." A surgical mask will best protect you from inhaling virus particles if both your mouth and nose are covered with no space for air to sneak in between the mask and your face. A December study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that surgical mask modifications, like tying the mask’s ear loops and tucking in the side pleats, can help keep your mask snug. And for more on signs you could be sick, check out This Rare Symptom Could Mean You Have a Severe COVID Case.
But the best mask, according to Frieden, is an N95, which he called out as "better than a surgical mask.” By definition, the N95's name says it all: these medical-grade masks fit snuggly and filter out at least 95 percent of large and small particles. But serious shortages—and more worryingly, a flood of counterfeit products—have made it difficult to get your hands on any.
Some experts argue that government assistance can lessen the strain on supplies, pointing to countries such as Austria and Germany that have begun distributing N95-equivalent masks to citizens and in some cases requiring them to be worn in public, Vox reports.
Still, there is one better option than the N95, even: "The best protection still remains avoiding contact with other people indoors, especially for a sustained period of time,” Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist from the University of Utah, told Vox. “Masks are not 100 percent effective. Staying away from people is 100 percent effective.” And for more on masking up, know that If You're Not Doing This, Your Mask Won't Protect You, Study Says.