While COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts have been declining slightly following the alarming post-holiday surge, new and more contagious strains threaten to hinder further progress in containing the pandemic until vaccinations are rolled out widely. The so-called UK strain is expected to become the dominant strain by March, and emerging South Africa and Brazil strains share similar potential for increased transmission. Vaccines may be less effective against these new strains.
Since these new strains are estimated to be 50 to 70 percent more infectious, we must intensify our efforts to break the chains of transmission.
Masks continue to be among the most effective preventive measures at our disposal — inexpensive and easy to use. Although mask use in Massachusetts is estimated to be over 90 percent, there is still room to make masks even more effective by upgrading face coverings to those that provide additional protection.
Not all masks are equal — the best ones offer effective filtration, breathability, and a snug fit to reduce exposure to unfiltered air. Recent studies have found that the best masks have three layers, with two cloth layers surrounding a filter layer. Flexible cloth material works better than stiffer paper. Masks with nose bridges and head ties instead of ear loops, which reduce gaps, are also more effective.
There are more options now available to up your mask game, compared with what we called for last spring. KF94 masks, made in Korea and readily available online, are a more comfortable option with moldable nose pieces and chin protection. New 9205+ masks from the 3M Company in the United States have been redesigned to offer the same protection as original N95 masks, but with better comfort and fit.
If you have access only to cloth masks, double masking can increase protection, especially if a tighter-fitting but more porous cloth mask is overlayed on a disposable, looser-fitting surgical mask. This double-layering works by adding more layers between your nose and the virus and is effective in both directions — protecting you from others, and others from you.
COVID-19 has killed more than 412,000 Americans and is expected to top 500,000 next month. To protect yourself and others, socially distance, wash your hands, avoid crowds and indoor spaces, and wear a better mask.
New coronavirus strains are more transmissible because they have mutated to attach to host cells more easily. Fewer viral particles are needed to cause infection and make you sick. Because of this, it is now more important than ever to use your best masks, especially because there are better options now. Up your mask game.
Shan Soe-Lin is managing director of Boston-based Pharos Global Health Advisors and a lecturer in global health at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. Robert Hecht is the president of Pharos Global Health Advisors and a clinical professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.