Medical Field Split On Whether Double-Masking Is Necessary

CDC Yet To Issue Formal Guidance On Wearing Two Masks

Illustration of two face coverings to protect against COVID-19
Will wearing two masks better protect me from the virus? Peter Hamlin/AP Illustration

When it’s winter, people wear more layers to keep warm and ward off the cold. The same general principle is behind wearing two face coverings to keep out coronavirus: more layers means better filtration.

But even as the virus mutates, finding new ways to more easily infect people, there isn’t consensus in the medical field on whether double masking is the way to go.

“I would rather focus on people having a high quality mask, whether that’s a paper (surgical) mask or cloth and then wearing it when they need to wear it rather than worrying about whether they should put on a second mask,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health.

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Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a third strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 was found in South Carolina. That variant, B.1.351, was originally detected in South Africa.

Two other worrisome variants, one from the United Kingdom and another from Brazil have already been found in the United States. So far, Wisconsin is aware of only one variant here. State health officials reported Jan. 13 that the first case of the U.K variant, B.1.1.7, was identified in Eau Claire. And a different variant found in Brazil, P.1, has made its way to Minnesota.

The CDC has not issued formal guidance on double masking but President Joe Biden is often seen wearing two masks, as does his chief medical officer, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“There’s no clear scientific data or evidence that definitely proves that two masks are superior to one, but it just makes common sense. The more layers you put into a mask, the better the filtration properties they have,” said trauma surgeon Dr. Christopher Davis, with Froedert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Davis, who also has a degree in public health, is involved in MaskUpMKE.

MaskUpMKE came about because of a shortage of masks early in the pandemic. A company from Saukville called Rebel Converting decided to make and donate face masks out of hospital-grade disinfectant wipes it was already producing.

What Kind Of Masks Should People Wear?

Masks range in quality based on how many layers they are and what material is used. Davis recommends people use a KN95 respirator if they can find one and to avoid buying N95’s in order to preserve them for hospital workers.

The two respirators are similar; the latter is approved by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. KN95 masks are made according to Chinese health standards and approved by the Chinese government.

Some health experts believe everyone should be wearing a high-grade mask. In an opinion piece featured in the Washington Post, Harvard associate professor Joseph Allen compared how well different types of masks work.

“This could be the key to slowing the pandemic and limiting spread from the new more highly transmissible variants until we all get vaccinated,” he wrote.

Other disagree. UW Health’s Pothoff says for most people, N95 respirators are not necessary because, unlike hospital workers, they’re not in close contact with someone who may be infected with COVID-19. Furthermore, the masks aren’t comfortable to wear for long periods of time, he said.