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Q&A: Should you upgrade your mask to protect against the variant?

Combatting the new variant may mean added protections.

DENVER — In late December, state health officials found the first case of the B-117 coronavirus variant in Colorado. As the country races to get the vaccine in arms, doctors urge the public to double down on protective measures like social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing.

"We were running a race with an opponent, and suddenly our opponent started running a lot faster, got a little boost. What we have to do in response is start running a little bit faster as well," said Dr. Payal Kohli, 9Health Expert. 

RELATED: 3 cases of COVID-19 variant now confirmed in Colorado

Kohli recommends upgrading to a double layer mask with a filter to prevent the spread of the variant believed to be more contagious.

"Masks are one of the most important things that we can change to help contain the spread," she said.

(Editor's note: Responses may have been lightly edited for context and clarity.)

What are your thoughts on the variant at this point? 

Kohli: Looking forward, these variants are really going to be the biggest challenge that we have to overcome in order to get our lives back to normal. As we saw in the UK, once the variants once come, they very quickly become the dominant strains because they are substantially more contagious and spread so much more quickly. I like to think about it like we were running a race with an opponent, and suddenly our opponent started running a lot faster, got a little boost. What we have to do in response is to start running a little bit faster as well. We're both still running, we're doing all the same things, but we're just doubling down on those mitigation measures in order to curb the spread of the variant.

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How do we double down on these mitigation measures?

Kohli: I think we need to double down on our mitigation efforts in a number of different ways. The first is we need to be more aggressive with limiting our time indoors. We need to spend less time indoors than before because this is a more aggressive variant that we think can spread more quickly. 

There's also some potential evidence that people who are infected with this variant may be giving off more virus in their droplets. They’re more contagious; it spreads more efficiently. We need to limit our encounters with them.

The masks are a very interesting issue because masks are the workhorse of protection. They're one of the ways in which we really protect ourselves from others and protect others from us. 

Now that we have a more contagious barrier, we absolutely need to think about whether we have the right type of mask, whether we have the right fit, and whether or not you know it's doing everything that it can do for us, because like I said, our opponent is running a little bit faster. We need some tools to run faster as well. Masks are one of the most important things that we can change to help contain the spread.

What about their masks do people need to change?

Kohli: A single layer mask is not enough. Whether you're using a disposable one or a cloth one, a single layer mask like those neck gators are absolutely not enough. If you can hold your mask up to the light and see the light through it, it's not really doing its job. 

You also want to be really mindful about the fit of the masks so that you have a really nice fit on the bridge of your nose, and you have a really nice fit around your mandible or your jawline because that's where the leakage occurs and that's where those particles can get in. 

In general, the ear loop masks are significantly more comfortable than the ones that tie on your head. The ones that tie in your head, if they're tied a little bit tighter, they actually provide more protection. We also know that masks with at least two layers plus a filter really do offer the best level of protection.

 For some people who don't have multi-layer masks, they're doubling up on their masks. Doubling up can certainly offer some advantages as well. First, it prevents more of those air leaks because more material is around your mouth and nose. Second, there are more layers, and the more layers you have, the more barrier protection you have. 

Keep in mind; multiple layers can make it a little more uncomfortable to wear the mask because they're obviously less breathable. If you are doubling up, you want to remember to keep the inside mask and the outside mask straight. You don't want to use them interchangeably because the outside mask is the one that's outside surface has potentially been contaminated. The last thing you want to do is flip it around and put it on the inside, right next to your mouth and nose, where you can inhale those potential viral particles.

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When is it most important to have this extra layer of protection?

Kohli: It's really when you're indoors for prolonged periods of time. Your grocery store runs your target run when you're inside a closed space with many people you don't live with. That's where you really have to be extra cautious. Some people use the two-mask strategy when they're going indoors to those spaces. If they're outdoors or walking their dog, or getting exercise, or what have you, they just do the one mask because that should be adequate. 

How can people ensure their mask fits properly, whether it be one or two?

Kohli: One way to know is to put on your glasses. If they fog up, it's probably not a great fit, especially around the nose. Another way to know whether or not it's a good fit is to get a humidifier. If you have a good fit, you shouldn't be feeling those particles on your face. Think about it like cigarettes. If cigarette smoke could get in, it means those virus aerosols could get in.  You want to have a much snugger fit to your face, so there are no gaps in the edges. You want to make sure you tighten those ear loops, so the fit is as snug as possible.

How effective are the single layer disposable masks at this point?

Kohli: The single-layer disposable mask will not offer you as much protection as you would want. Wearing a single-layer disposable mask is better than nothing at all, but it's really time to double them up because we've got a more aggressive virus circulating. Keep in mind, you can keep more distance, and you can spend less time indoors. It's a multifactorial approach to try to slow the spread of the virus.

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