"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.
After the CDC recommended the use of multiple masks to protect from the coronavirus, Peter Gulick, professor of medicine at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and infectious disease expert, has weighed in on the new strains of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of layering multiple masks. According to Gulick, using a well-fitting cloth mask over a surgical or disposable mask can decrease exposure to particulates by 85% to 90%.
What can you tell us about the new variant strains of COVID-19?
The new variants are very disturbing because there are a couple of them. The United Kingdom, or UK, variant is already in Michigan and the South African variant is in other parts of the United States as well.
The coronavirus is an RNA virus, which mutates quicker than DNA viruses. An RNA virus is a virus that has ribonucleic acid as its genetic material, whereas a DNA virus has a genome made of deoxyribonucleic acid. With COVID-19, the higher the number of infections in people with weaker immune systems, the quicker the virus can mutate. In fact, the UK strain mutated to a point that it overtook the original strain in the UK.
In addition, these new variants are highly transmissible. The UK variant is 30% to 50% more transmissible, so it’s important to identify better prevention methods. There is new data that implies that the vaccine might work for the UK strain, but we really do not know yet.
How has the winter affected the spread of the virus?
Because we’re in enclosed areas, we do not have a lot of ventilation. This can lead to higher rates of aerosolization, which is another important mechanism spreading the virus. Aerosolization is when a substance is converted into small particles that can travel through the air. We tend to worry about larger droplets, but aerosolization provides finer particles of the virus that can travel 12 feet or even further, for example when somebody sneezes.
The amount of the virus in aerosolized particles is lower than in droplets, but the virus is still there and can often last longer. In fact, those particles in enclosed areas can linger anywhere from minutes to a couple of hours.
What value do you see in wearing double masks?
Double masking, which typically refers to wearing a surgical mask with a cloth mask layered over it, is not quite like wearing an N95 surgical mask, but it still filters particles. To be effective, your mask needs to be tightly woven and you need it to be as thick and protective as possible. It’s also important to wear your masks properly and to make sure they sit tight around your face. A simple way to test a mask is to shine a light through it. If any light shines through, then it likely is not thick enough.
Importantly, wearing a double mask will be effective against these new variant strains. As mentioned, the new variants will still be transmitted by contaminated droplets and aerosolization. The manner of transmission, compounded with the heightened infection rates of the new strains, indicates that another protective layer in the form of a mask can protect you more than only one would.
Additionally, wearing a double mask can protect you from someone that is asymptomatic, and it can also protect others from you if you are asymptomatic. As Dr. Fauci has said, the way to beat the virus is to eliminate the virus. Double masking can help achieve that.