Yes, in some cases, 2 face masks are better than 1, Alaska health experts say

Disposable face masks for sale at a Carrs–Safeway in Anchorage. Photographed Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Across the country, health experts are urging people to upgrade their face masks — or put on two — as more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread.

Local health officials say Alaskans should heed the advice.

“A tight weave and multiple layers are what we’re looking for,” said Anchorage Health Department epidemiologist Janet Johnston.

So, if you’re sporting a single-layer cloth face mask right now, Johnston said, it’s time to level up.

“With the more transmissible variants, they don’t cut it anymore,” she said. “It’s just too easy for something to get through.”

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Alaska’s state health department has reported just one case of a new variant of COVID-19 so far, called B.1.1.7. Some scientists say the variant could be 50% more contagious. Alaska health officials say they’re bracing for more cases.

“Unfortunately, just as we knew, eventually, the pandemic would make it to Alaska, we also know, eventually, the variants will make it,” Johnston said.

“But what we’re hoping is that people will adopt these more vigilant preventive measures,” she said, “and we’ll be able to keep the spread down.”

When it comes to wearing a face mask, the idea is to create an effective barrier.

Masks make it more difficult for the droplets that spread coronavirus to reach the people around you, and for outside particles to make it to your airways, said Dr. David Scordino, medical director of the emergency department at Alaska Regional Hospital.

But not all masks are created equal.

A single piece of cloth, he noted, is “really just criss-crossing fibers.” It still has areas of open space.

You could think of layering pieces of cloth, like stacking slices of swiss cheese, Johnston said. Holes become smaller, or some get covered up completely.

“There’s even more of a maze that the respiratory particles have to get through before they would get out to a place where somebody else could inhale them,” she said.

Johnston said Alaskans could choose to wear a single, well-fitting mask that has two or more layers of fabric. (But, she underscored, not so many layers that it becomes hard to breathe.)

Another option is to wear a cloth face mask that has a pocket for a filter.

Double-masking advocates have also recommended people wear a cloth mask over a disposable, surgical mask, saying the combination could provide protection similar to the gold-standard N-95s, which remain in short supply. The idea is that the surgical mask is the main filter, while the cloth mask provides a snugger fit.

Outside of work, Dr. Bob Onders, an administrator at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said he normally wears a multi-layer, washable cloth mask with a filter.

However, if he had to be in a crowded, tight space, like a plane, he would think about wearing two masks and eye protection.

It’s all about assessing risk.

“I think it’s important to do a risk analysis and, in some scenarios, a cloth mask with at least two to three layers is completely appropriate,” Onders said. “But as the risk increases, I think you do want to increase your mask safety.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said while two masks likely will provide more protection, there are still Alaskans who aren’t wearing just one mask properly.

“Whether you’re wearing one mask or two masks, the mask needs to fit well,” he said.

That means that there are no big gaps between the mask and your face, he said, and that it covers your mouth and your nose.

Aside from wearing masks, Scordino said, Alaskans should also continue to follow other health measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, as the vaccination rollout presses on.

“We have light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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