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Although being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 drastically reduces the chances of being hospitalized and dying from the disease, shots don’t completely eliminate the risks of infection.

That’s why health experts have continued to urge people to put other preventative measures into practice, including wearing masks to benefit from an extra layer of protection during the pandemic.

But more than a year and a half later, what else have scientists learned about masks’ ability to curb the spread of the coronavirus? And are the types of masks first recommended by health officials still effective as more dangerous variants emerge?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Mask guide took a shaky path earlier this year when officials announced that fully vaccinated people could ditch their masks in all scenarios, hence the they withdrew and said they should wear masks indoors in public in areas of “substantial or high transmission.” The CDC has updated its recommendations following waves of coronavirus cases caused by the delta variant.

Unvaccinated people and immunocompromised vaccinated people should continue to wear well-fitting masks indoors in public. Masks are generally not needed outdoors, except in areas with a high number of COVID-19 cases.

In general, the CDC states that masks should have two or more layers of “washable and breathable fabric” that completely cover the nose and mouth. It should “fit snugly to the sides of the face” with no gaps and have a thread that bends over the nose to prevent air leaking from the top.

These criteria may include cloth masks, surgical masks, homemade masks, and those with clear plastic panels to facilitate communication. The CDC says you should avoid masks made of tissue that makes it difficult to breathe, which have exhalation valves or vents, and N95 masks labeled “surgical” or “medical” to prioritize them for healthcare professionals.

Proceed with caution with homemade and cloth masks

If you decide to continue wearing your homemade multi-layer or cloth mask, experts recommend washing them every day. But proceed with caution.

A study published in July 2020 found that respiratory droplets traveled about 2.5 inches after passing through a homemade cloth mask, about 8 inches with a disposable cone-shaped mask and just over a foot. with a folded handkerchief in a laboratory setting. But with a bandana, the cough droplets traveled about 3 feet 7 inches – worst of all apart from no mask – even though the material had the highest thread count compared to the other covers.

There are two tests that infectious disease specialist Dr. Roy Chemaly of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas calls “flow and glow” to assess the quality of your mask.

One is to hold a lit match or candle about 6 inches in front of your face while wearing the mask and try to put it out. If the flame goes out, the mask may need to be refreshed. The other test is to hold the mask in bright light; if you see through it, your mask may not be thick enough to block the respiratory droplets of other potentially sick people.

A study published in September of nearly 350,000 people in rural Bangladesh found that villages assigned to wear surgical masks were about 11% less likely than villages that wore no masks to develop COVID-19 in eight weeks. Protection has increased to 35% for people over 60.

Villages that wore cloth masks saw fewer cases of COVID-19 than villages that wore none, but researchers at Stanford and Yale University said “the difference was not statistically significant,” aligning with studies showing that surgical masks can filter out germs better. The cloth masks, however, reduced the likelihood of Bangladeshi residents experiencing coronavirus symptoms while infected.

“Our study provides strong evidence that wearing the mask can disrupt the transmission of [the coronavirus]. It also suggests that filtration efficiency is important, “study co-author Dr Stephen Luby, a professor of medicine at Stanford, said in a statement.” This includes the fit of the mask and the materials it is made from. A cloth mask is definitely better than nothing. But now may be a good time to consider upgrading to a surgical mask. “

It is important to note that surgical masks are not designed to be reused. The US Food and Drug Administration states that if they are “damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, it should be removed, discarded safely, and replaced with a new one.”

Surgical aligners can also lose their effectiveness over time. A study published in July 2020 found that people who cough lightly can still excrete droplets up to 3 feet from their mouth while wearing a surgical mask because pressure builds up inside.

Should you double the mask?

When the delta variant began to dominate all other versions of the coronavirus in the United States, some health experts suggested that people wear two masks: one cloth over one surgical. The CDC never officially imposed double masks, but the agency included them in the updated recommendations.

A CDC study published in February found that wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask, in addition to modifying a surgical mask by tying ear loops, reduced a healthy person’s risk of contracting the coronavirus by more than 95 percent.

Some experts have said that it doesn’t hurt to wear two masks, but as long as your single homemade, tissue, or surgical mask meets the criteria set by the CDC, you should benefit from some protection against coronavirus infection.

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