Why masking up can protect NC from current, future COVID-19 variants

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Hospitals like UNC Health are once again feeling the strain of COVID-19 patients.

“We are stretched really thin on staffing,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a UNC public health physician.

Pettigrew said masking for vaccinated and unvaccinated people is key to relieving some of that pressure.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to head off a real disaster with our hospitals being overwhelmed,” said Pettigrew.

Citing unpublished data, the CDC said earlier this week that when infected with the Delta variant, vaccinated and unvaccinated people have the same amount of virus particles in their nose. It’s why they believe vaccinated people can spread COVID-19.

“CDC has a great track record when they’re basing their decision on preliminary data that maybe isn’t available quite yet to the general public,” said Pettigrew.

But should we take their word for it without seeing the data ourselves?

“I wouldn’t want them to wait weeks or months until publication, If they know something that would keep us safer, they should come out and say it, then we see the data when it comes out,” said Pettigrew.

Past studies have shown masking not only protects you but those around you. Double-layered, fitted masks have been found to be the most effective. Pettigrew says slowing down infections with masks could also slow the virus from mutating further.

“But I worry if we continue to have lot and lots of people going unvaccinated, we’re gonna end up with a variant that figures out possibly how to get around masks,” said Pettigrew.

It’s why she and the CDC have both said vaccines are the permanent solution.

“Things may change again and they may change for the better or they may change for the worse and it all will depend on our actions now,” said Pettigrew.

Duke lists most, least effective face coverings

Researchers at Duke Health conclude wearing a neck gaiter as a facial covering may be worse than not wearing one at all. The finding came from a study looking at the effectiveness of 14 different face coverings.

Using a system built for just a few hundred dollars, researchers repeated the phrase “Stay healthy, people” into a box.

They then tracked the amount of droplets that were expelled from the speaker’s mouth. The process was repeated for all 14 masks.

Not surprisingly, the study found the face-covering most effective for reducing the amount of droplets expelled from the speaker’s mouth were N95 masks without valves followed by surgical masks. Face coverings made with polycotton followed closely behind and blocked 80 percent of droplets.

The least effective methods were double layer bandanas, not wearing a mask at all, followed by neck gaiters.

In order of effectiveness the masks ranked in the following order. The number in parenthesis corresponds with the number given to the masks in the photo below.

Source: Duke Health
1. Surgical mask, 2. Valved N95, 3. Knitted, 4. ‘PolyProp’ 2-layer polypropylene apron mask, 5. ‘Poly/Cotton’ Cotton-polypropylene-cotton mask, 6. ‘MaxAT’1-layer Maxima AT mask, 7. ‘Cotton2 ’2-layer cotton, pleated style mask, 8. ‘Cotton 4 ’2-layer cotton, Olson style mask, 9. ‘Cotton3′ 2-layer cotton, pleated style mask, 10. ‘Cotton1’1-layer cotton, pleated style mask, 11. ‘Fleece’ Gaiter type neck fleece, 12. ‘Bandana’ Double-layer bandana, 13. ‘Cotton5′ 2-layer cotton, pleated style mask, 14. Fitted N95
  1. N95 with no valve (14)
  2. Surgical (1)
  3. Poly/cotton masks (5)
  4. 2-layer PolyProp apron mask (4)
  5. Swath
  6. 2-layer cotton, pleated style (13)
  7. Valved N95 (2)
  8. 2-layer cotton, Olson style mask (8)
  9. 1-layer Maxima AT mask (6)
  10. 1-layer cotton-pleated style mask (10)
  11. 2-layer cotton pleated mask (9)
  12. Knitted (3)
  13. Double-layer Bandana (12)
  14. None
  15. Neck gaiter (11)

2 might be better than 1

In February, CDC’s announced face coverings protect not only those around you but the wearer, too. They said that protection can greatly increase when a person wears two masks, according to that new guidance.

A CDC study found a surgical mask alone can offer about 42-percent protection. A cloth mask can offer about 44-percent protection. Wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask can block 92-percent of viral particles.


An experiment at UNC Chapel Hill found:

  • Two surgical masks blocked 15% more particles
  • A surgical mask over a cloth mask blocks 10% more particles
  • Cloth over a surgical mask blocks 40% more particles

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