EAU CLAIRE — Wearing two masks, instead of one, to protect from COVID-19 has drawn the attention of prominent virology experts and politicians in recent months. State and Chippewa Valley experts say there’s good reason to believe wearing two masks will protect the wearer more than one, in some situations — but warned that people should focus more on finding masks with a snug fit and several layers.
“Not all mask designs are created equal,” said state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard in a Jan. 29 call with reporters. “ … If someone’s wearing a mask that’s not medical-grade, it needs to have multiple layers. Wearing two masks might be one way to make sure there are multiple layers.”
Double-masking drew widespread national attention in January when Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s “Today” show that it “makes common sense that (double masking) would be more effective.” President Joe Biden and several other politicians have commonly worn surgical masks underneath cloth face masks in public since December.
State and local experts caution that double-masking likely offers more protection in some situations, but point out that it may be easier to look for a close-fitting, multi-layered single mask instead.
“With a single layer of cotton, like a bandanna or neck gaiter — studies show that particles pass right through those,” Westergaard said. “We’re not recommending that everyone wear two masks as a rule, but people should be aware of how masks work.”
The novel coronavirus spreads when people with COVID-19 talk, breathe, cough, sneeze or sing, releasing respiratory droplets and smaller, aerosolized particles; masks act as a barrier to those droplets and particles as they leave the mouth and nose.
Though the CDC’s basic recommendations right now are to wear one, multi-layer, well-fitting face mask, “there certainly may be good reason to consider more than a couple of layers, so double masking may provide some additional benefit,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Jan. 28 news conference.
Using a well-fitted mask that has multiple, tightly-woven layers is the first, most important thing to consider, said Dr. Muhibah Kila, infection preventionist at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire.
“We do not have a CDC recommendation, for now, on the use of two masks,” Kila told the Leader-Telegram Tuesday. “In theory, yes, two might be better if they both only have single layers.”
Surgical masks already have multiple layers, so wearing two “would be a lot,” Kila added.
But wearing two masks could also add protection if one mask is too loose or falls down the wearer’s face.
“I think that’s where the idea of two layers comes in,” Kila said. “But if you have a good (mask) that fits nicely, it will work fine, better than one that is coming off your face.”
Surgical masks are generally more protective than homemade cloth masks, and personal respirators like N95s offer even more protection, studies indicate — though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still urging people to save N95s for frontline health care workers.
The CDC hasn’t recommended that people double-mask. As of Tuesday, here’s what the agency is recommending: two or more layers of washable fabric, a snug fit against the sides of your face without gaps, and complete cover for your nose and mouth.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Associated Press this week that wearing a cloth face mask, along with a regular surgical mask, with either mask on top, could help the wearer reach similar levels of protection as a N95 respirator. Another option Gandhi recommended: A two-layer cloth mask with a filter material in between.
Neck gaiters should have two layers or should be folded to create two layers, according to the CDC. (The agency doesn’t recommend only wearing a face shield, or substituting a scarf or balaclava for a mask.)
While a close-fitting surgical mask is better than a cloth face mask, cloth is certainly better than nothing, Kila said.
The Eau Claire health department is focusing more on getting people to simply wear masks, Giese said.
“That basic strategy is critically important for our community,” Giese said.