As the new coronavirus variants spread throughout the world and in the U.S., public health officials in many countries are asking citizens to upgrade their face masks to N95s or start layering masks. In a country already fraught with the politicization of masks, the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world when masking up. Some countries, like South Korea and Singapore, mass-produced high-quality, effective masks to distribute directly to citizens, while European countries are allowing no mistakes or misunderstandings: medical-grade masks are mandatory while in public.
The U.K. variant, which has been found to be quickly proliferating in Florida and California, is up to 70% more transmissible according to British scientists. Regardless of your stance on masks, it may soon become mandatory to wear a mask outside, if not two.
Lead By Example
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President's chief medical advisor and the U.S.'s leading expert on infectious diseases, has been easing the nation into wearing two masks for coronavirus protection by leading by example. At the Presidential inauguration, Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten wore two masks. The first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who gave a poetry reading wore two masks as she walked into the inauguration.
According to Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we need to "[up] our game and [do] not more of the same but better of the same." But the current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, warned that N95 masks may feel incredibly uncomfortable to wear on a regular basis and could do more bad than good if the public stops using masks constantly as a result. The CDC's current guidelines don't mention wearing two masks, although they do dissuade the public from wearing single-layer masks. In that case, wearing enough masks to create two or three layers is necessary.
The President hasn't mandated masking up with a medical-grade mask or the mass production of higher-quality masks for public distribution, but he has said that masks will be an important part of stimying the spread of the virus. He is now requiring masks in airports, on planes, and in all federal buildings.
Some public health experts aren't happy with how much Biden is doing, however. They say that the U.S. federal government should have prioritized mass manufacturing better masks and distributed them so that American citizens don't have to fend for a better-quality mask. During Trump's administration, however, there was a collaboration with underwear makers to send five masks to each household in the U.S. But the plans didn't go through because the masks seemingly too closely resembled underwear or jockstraps.
Abraar Karan is a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and he says that he's asked the federal government to mass-produce effective and comfortable masks for widespread distribution since last spring. He asserted that a big move like that would have protected Americans better this past year. Karan says, "We needed better masks from the start."
Protecting Yourself and Others
But what can we do now? We should not and can not wait for the government to act. According to Linsey Marr, one of the world’s leading aerosol scientists, we can get the best protection by tightly layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask. Or, if you don't have the means or ability to get a surgical mask, use a high-efficiency filter like a vacuum bag in between two layers of a regular cloth mask. Either way, additional protection is extremely valuable in protecting us from catching the virus or one of its variants.
Now, it's safer for you and those around you and in your household to wear two masks in public. Cady Fusté works in photoproduction in Seattle. Her mother had a double lung transplant which makes her an at-risk patient for COVID-19. Fusté has begun wearing two masks instead of one because her mother's doctor advised her to. Fusté says, "Science evolves. It makes total sense to me. If you think about it, if you can still smell someone’s perfume, it’s probably not that effective to something that’s airborne. A thin layer of cotton is probably not as ideal as a surgical mask."
But not everyone is as open-minded and willing to shift their habits like Fusté. Behavioral psychologists are warning public health officials that there may be a backlash when they change their mask guidance for the public. The psychologists say that changing habits is already difficult in normal times, but people are living through a crisis right now, and causing confusion can cause a lack of trust and lack of habit alterations.
Conforming to New Guidance
It's imperative for the government to acknowledge that the CDC's guidance is changing and to be patient with the public as they make sense of the new guidance. They may not change their behavior immediately, and we should have contingency plans and educational conferences to help everyone cross the finish line together. But according to Linda Aldoory, a public health communications researcher at the University of Maryland, the damage may be done already. She says there may be people who cannot be swayed to trust the government again after losing faith in them already.
Aldoory posited that another approach might be necessary, one that involves using celebrities and influencers to wear better masks and double masks. Danny Ryan works in communications in D.C., and he says that seeing Biden and Harris wear two masks made him start wearing double masks. In the end, it may be the politicians that have the most sway in public perception of new mask guidance.
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