Are Cloth Face Coverings Enough To Prevent COVID-19 Delta Variant Infection?

As the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 continues to wreak havoc in many parts of the country, many people are questioning the ability of cloth face coverings to provide protection against the fast-spreading coronavirus strain. 

Face Coverings As Protection Against COVID-19

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are torn on which type of face coverings should be recommended for use by the general public. While the golden standard remains to be the N95 respirator, not everyone has access to it. The second-best, which is the surgical mask, suffered shortages for a time, causing public health officials to issue recommendations for cloth face coverings in the face of SARS-CoV-2. 

But things have drastically changed since the delta variant arrived. The more contagious variant is now the most common strain of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., and it poses a much bigger risk as it is nearly twice as contagious as the earlier strains, and it is also more likely to cause the more severe form of the disease, according to Mayo Clinic

Considering that the delta strain is more dangerous than all the other earlier strains of SARS-CoV-2, there has been an ongoing debate on whether or not the general public should upgrade from wearing cloth face coverings to using surgical masks or N95 respirators in public to better prevent transmissions. 

What The CDC Is Saying

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to promote the use of cloth face coverings as part of the safety protocols amid the global health crisis. In fact, in its online guidance, the public health agency is strongly against the use of N95 respirators and surgical masks by the general public. 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci has also not recommended the use of higher-quality masks despite the surge in cases due to the delta variant. During his guest appearance on MSNBC’s “The Mehdi Hasan Show” in late August, Fauci insisted that “instead of worrying about what kind of mask [to use], just wear a mask.”

University of California, San Francisco infectious diseases expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong weighed in on Fauci’s statement. He said that the latter might just be emphasizing the need to just wear something that feels comfortable and one that can be worn for long periods when staying in a particular environment instead of thinking of the need to only wear the gold standard at all times. 

Are Cloth Masks Still Useful At This Point?

Chin-Hong, who has admitted to mostly 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 depend on this type of face mask if they are entering indoor public places. 

According to Chin-Hong, it is important to always assess the situation. When one is faced with a riskier circumstance, it is better to come prepared with a higher-quality mask, such as a surgical mask. “Nothing is zero risk, so it’s just a matter of risk reduction,” he added. 

For Raina McIntyre, who has conducted several studies on masks including the one published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering in May, it’s all about the design of the cloth masks. In the study she made with her colleagues, they found that a multilayer face mask that combines cotton/linen and polyester/nylon is just as effective as surgical masks in blocking droplets.

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