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CDC updates mask guidance as more contagious virus variants spread

Cloth mask over a surgical mask can improve fit, reduce COVID-19 spread

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., wears two masks, one marking President Joe Biden's place as the 46th president, as he walks out of the West Wing after meeting on Feb. 3.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., wears two masks, one marking President Joe Biden's place as the 46th president, as he walks out of the West Wing after meeting on Feb. 3. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance Wednesday to recommend wearing two masks as the United States combats highly contagious COVID-19 virus variants.

CDC researchers found wearing a cloth mask over a medical mask decreased virus exposure by roughly 95 percent if both parties wore double masks, as did wearing tightly-fitted medical masks, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Wednesday. The CDC’s studies found that wearing a tight-fitting mask with multiple layers is crucial. Walensky also recommended other options such as wearing nylon pantyhose with a mask to ensure a tight fit or a special “mask fitter” over a mask to tighten things up.

Walensky told reporters that the new mask guidance does not negate previous CDC guidance. Wearing one cloth mask is still an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, but wearing two masks or wearing a tight-fitted mask can further reduce the transmission of virus particles.

These new recommendations were published on the CDC website. 

The administration wants to improve mask-wearing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 as new virus variants spread rapidly across the United States. Between 1 percent to 4 percent of all cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. right now is believed to be from the B.1.1.7 variant common in the United Kingdom. 

By March, scientists expect the highly contagious B 1.1.7 variant to be the dominant COVID-19 strain in the U.S., said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have decreased in places that have mask mandates. As of the beginning of February, 14 states and the District of Columbia have a universal mask mandate. Some other states have mask mandates for particular situations, such as in indoor locations. Many other states previously had mask mandates but have since let up. Walensky encouraged states to stay the course, continue their mask mandates and encourage proper mask-wearing technique.

“This is especially true with our ongoing concern about new variants spreading in the United States,” Walensky said.

The already authorized vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna can protect against the new virus variants, and public health officials encourage Americans to get the shots as soon as they are available to them.

The administration will help stand up three new mass vaccination centers in Texas, COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said. 

The three sites will be in Texas sports stadiums in Houston, Dallas and Arlington and should be able to inoculate more than 10,000 people per day. Zients says the administration is deploying federal teams immediately and plans to begin getting shots in arms starting Feb. 22.

Stadiums and arenas have become key hubs in the nation’s vaccine rollout as COVID-19 are increasingly being distributed in mass inoculation sites built from scratch. These mega-sites help distribute vaccines quickly, but it is sometimes difficult to get an appointment due to fierce competition for limited time slots.

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