While on the one hand, daily new cases are slowly on the decline in the Bay Area and across California, on the other, we are back to square one with significant unknowns about new COVID variants appearing here and elsewhere. This puts us back to where we were last spring in some ways, with some uncertainty about how fast these new variants could proliferate, and experts are encouraging the public to wear two masks and not to make unnecessary shopping trips — all while things like outdoor dining and hair salons are reopening.
Ordinary lockdown measures proved insufficient to stop the spread of the U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, which initial data suggests is 50 to 70 percent more transmissible than the original strains of the coronavirus. That variant has now been detected in 26 states the U.S., with 308 confirmed cases to date (as of Jan. 26), and epidemiologists caution that it is probably far more prevalent than that, given the limited genetic testing on virus samples that is currently being done. And while it's not yet scientifically confirmed, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested last week that the variant may also be more deadly than the previous strains — and it is now the dominant strain across the U.K., where a third wave of infections and an uptick in hospitalizations is occurring.
Fears about this strain gaining more traction in the U.S., in addition to fears about the Brazilian, South African, and "Bay Area" strains that have been detected, have experts trying to raise alarm bells about how people should be doing more to protect themselves than ever before when they are in public spaces.
Dr. Anthony Fauci went on the Today show this week to back up what other experts have suggested about double-masking, saying that it "just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective, and that's the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95."
New CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned people on Wednesday that encouraging N95 use might counterintuitively be less safe, because the restrictive nature of the masks might make people want to wear them less. Still, other experts have suggested that a similar level of protection can be had by putting a disposable surgical mask on over a cloth mask, or vice versa (the CDC's official recommendation is to wear a mask with at least two layers in it).
As the Washington Post reports, several Asian countries including South Korea and Singapore have mailed mass-produced high-quality masks to their residents. And more experts are encouraging people to buy KN95 masks or other medical-grade masks, as uncertainty about the new variants grows.
Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who has researched mask effectiveness last year, tells the Post, "Those standard cloth masks might be around 50 percent effective in terms of protecting yourself. Maybe that was good enough before when combined with distancing and trying to avoid being in crowded indoor spaces." But now that restrictions are being lifted just as these more transmissible variants arrive, double-masking is the best way to go.
A 2020 study by Japanese researchers found that those standard surgical masks are also about 50 percent effective at protecting the wearer, and 60 to 70 percent effective at protecting those around them from aerosolized droplets.
As CNN notes, Pete Buttigieg and his husband both opted for double masks when they attended the inauguration, as did poet Amanda Gorman — who wore a surgical mask beneath her more fashionable Prada one.
UCSF's Dr. Monica Gandhi published her own arguments for double-masking back in mid-December. She explained that while cloth and surgical mask materials may not be fully filtering out tiny virus particles, they do still, in fact, make it more difficult for them to infect people.
"Filtering is not sieving out things that are too large to pass through holes in the material," Dr. Ghandi writes. "Rather, air must curve as it flows around individual, tightly packed fibers of the material, like a race car swerving around cones of an obstacle course. As the air curves, the aerosols it carries cannot make the sharp bends and therefore slam into the fibers, or they come too close to the fibers and stick to them. Very small aerosols acquire random motion from air molecules bouncing off them and end up crashing into the fibers. This process works in both directions as air flows through a mask."
Public health officials in California expect that case numbers will rise as businesses begin reopening again — much the way they did in July. As the Chronicle reports, that was part of the calculation in Governor Gavin Newsom's decision earlier this week to lift the stay-at-home orders across the state where hospitalizations still remain high, but are on the decline.
Experts say that if you're going to opt to dine outdoors at a restaurant, you should still take precautions and not assume you are safe from other people's viral clouds. And even though it might be tempting on a cold night, it's best to avoid any outdoor setups that involve tents or tarp walls.
As Professor Marr tells the paper, "The point of eating outdoors is that you’re out in the air, there’s no wall or ceiling to trap any virus that people might be releasing into the air. As soon as you start adding walls, you’re going to trap that more."
And the next time you go to grocery shopping or head to Walgreens, DON'T JUST WEAR A SINGLE MASK.
Top image: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration on January 20 wearing two masks, with a surgical mask beneath the fashion one. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)