The Best Mask to Protect You From the U.K. COVID Strain, Doctor Says

When news broke in December of a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in the UK, medical experts warned of its risk of contagion, which is 50 percent higher than the current dominant strain in the US. However, the CDC released a report on Jan. 15 that this more transmissible form of COVID could become the dominant home state from the UK by March. This is why it is now more important than ever to adhere to the basic public health guidelines that have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic. This of course includes avoiding the crowd, social distancing in public, and regular hand washing. However, the new highly transmittable COVID strain from the UK also requires more attention to your face mask - and your current option may not protect you optimally from this contagious new strain.
With the UK variant now reported in a dozen states, experts are suggesting that the public scrutinize their PPE decisions. "The fact that [the variants] are so contagious suggests I have a better mask," said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Vox. Read on to see his ranking of the face masks from lowest to most effective. If you know where the British strain is so far in the US, check out The New COVID Strain Is Now In Those States.
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Cloth masks
A middle aged woman in a yellow shirt smiles while wearing a cloth mask
Since everyday face coverings have become the norm, non-medical masks, whether DIY or designer, have flooded the market. And while they are still effective in stopping the virus from spreading to others, due to the highly contagious nature of the newest strain, they are ill-equipped to protect the carrier from inhaling virus particles themselves.
As Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard point out in an article in the Atlantic, "Construction, materials and fit are important, and these cannot be tracked or certified with homemade masks." However, they also recommend a simple solution because "cloth masks can be upgraded with a nasal wire (for fit) and a filter insert - and there are over 100,000 styles of these masks available on Etsy".
Julie Swann, PhD, a professor at North Carolina State University who studied the effectiveness of COVID-19 masks, told Vox that tight, well-fitting DIY masks with more than one layer are better than single-layer cloth masks - which is also can be achieved by doubling it. And to keep things safe, stop doing this right away to avoid the new COVID burden, doctors warn.
Surgical masks
Man wearing a mask
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 regulating materials makes them safer than a homemade mask made from unapproved material, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has still "not approved any type of surgical mask specifically designed to protect against the coronavirus". For more ways to be sure, see These three things could prevent almost all COVID cases.
Correctly adapted surgical masks
Woman in a mask looking out the window
While surgical masks are superior to cloth masks, Frieden told Vox that "a tight-fitting surgical mask is better than a loose-fitting mask". A surgical mask is the best way to protect you from inhaling virus particles when both your mouth and nose are covered and there is no air space between the mask and your face. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in December found that surgical mask modifications such as tying the mask's ear loops and tucking in the gussets can help keep your mask in place. For more information on signs that you may be sick, see This rare symptom could mean you have a severe COVID case.
N95 masks
n95 mask on man
But the best mask, according to Frieden, is an N95, which he described as "better than a surgical mask". By definition, the name of the N95 says it all: these medical masks fit well and filter out at least 95 percent of the particles, large and small. But serious shortages - and, more worryingly, a deluge of counterfeit products - have made it difficult to get your hands on any.
Some experts argue that government support can reduce the burden on care, citing countries like Austria and Germany that have started handing out N95-equivalent masks to citizens and in some cases are requiring them to be worn publicly, reports Vox.
Still, there's a better option than the N95: "The best protection is still to avoid contact with other people indoors, especially over long periods of time," Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist from the University of Utah, told Vox. "Masks aren't 100 percent effective. Staying away from people is 100 percent effective." If you are interested in learning more about masking, you should know that if you don't, your mask will not protect you.

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