With the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 continuing to wreak havoc in many parts of the country, many people are questioning the ability of fabric coverings to provide protection from the rapidly spreading strain of coronavirus.
Face covers as protection against COVID-19
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been torn about what type of face coverings should be recommended for the general public. The gold standard remains the N95 respirator, but not everyone has access to it. The second best, the surgical mask, suffered intermittent shortages, leading public health officials to make recommendations for fabric face coverings in the face of SARS-CoV-2.
But things have changed drastically since the introduction of the Delta variant. The more contagious variant is the most common strain of the novel coronavirus in the United States today and poses a much greater risk because it is almost twice as contagious as the earlier strains and also more likely to cause the more severe form of the disease, according to Mayo Clinic.
Given that the Delta strain is more dangerous than any other previous strain of SARS-CoV-2, there has been an ongoing debate over whether to move the general public from wearing cloth face coverings to using surgical masks or N95- Switching to breathing apparatus in public should better prevent transmissions.
What the CDC says
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to promote the use of fabric coverings as part of safety protocols amid the global health crisis. In fact, in its online guide, the Health Department strongly opposes the use of N95 respirators and surgical masks by the general public.
The director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has not recommended the use of higher quality masks due to the delta variant, despite the increase in cases. During his guest appearance on MSNBC’s “The Mehdi Hasan Show” in late August, Fauci insisted that “instead of worrying about what type of mask” [to use], just wear a mask. “
University of California San Francisco Infectious Disease Expert, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong commented on Fauci’s testimony. He said the latter may just emphasize the need to only wear something that is comfortable to the touch and that can be worn for extended periods of time when in a certain setting, rather than remembering to only wear the gold standard at all times.
Are fabric masks still useful at the moment?
Chin-Hong, who has admitted to primarily wearing N95 respirators and surgical masks as a medical professional, told the Seattle Times that cloth face coverings are still useful in certain circumstances. For example, fully vaccinated individuals can rely on this type of face mask when entering public indoor spaces.
According to Chin-Hong, it is important to always assess the situation. When faced with a riskier circumstance, it is better to be prepared with a higher quality mask, such as a surgical mask. “Nothing is risk-free, so it’s all about risk mitigation,” he added.
For Raina McIntyre, who has conducted multiple studies on masks, including the one published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering magazine in May, it’s all about fabric mask design. In the study she conducted with her colleagues, they found that a multi-layer face mask combining cotton / linen and polyester / nylon was just as effective as surgical masks at blocking droplets.