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With COVID-19 variants creeping in, experts suggest two masks are better than one

An extra mask could better protect the public from more contagious variants, but fit and filters are still most important factors.

MINNEAPOLIS — The arrival of more contagious COVID-19 variants in the United States is leading a growing number of public health experts to recommend doubling down on your mask wearing, by doubling up your protection.

In an interview with the NBC Today show this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci endorsed the idea of wearing two cloth masks to help better protect yourself from the more contagious variants.

"It's a physical covering to prevent droplets and virus to get in," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden. "So if you have a physical covering with one layer, if you put another layer on it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective."

The advice comes at a time when a COVID-19 variant from the U.K. has spread to 23 states. This week, the Minnesota Department of Health also reported the first U.S. case of a variant that began in Brazil.

Susan Arnold is a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who has been part of a team studying masks throughout the pandemic. 

Arnold says the question of whether or not to double up depends on your mask. She says the N95 respirator offers superior protection on its own, but it's also still very hard to find. Arnold also helped design comparable filtered masks that can be created with readily available materials with downloadable instructions. But if you can't get your face on something like that, she says a second mask is a good option for a few reasons.

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Susan Arnold: "The benefits are two-fold. You're adding another layer of protection, and it can provide a better seal, so it forms that barrier between the face and the air, so that it's hard for the particles that contain the virus to get into our breathing zone."

Kent Erdahl: "There will be a number of people watching that will say, 'It's hard enough for me to wear one mask right now.' What do you say to those people?"

Arnold: "For some people, it just isn't going to be feasible, and for certain activities it's going to be a lot harder."

Erdahl: "So If you're only wearing one, is there something that you should keep in mind?"

Arnold: "A single mask with a really good fit may be superior to a couple of masks that are really poorly fit. Honestly, (fit) is important whether you're wearing a cloth mask or an N95."

Arnold says the setting matters as well. She is able to wear an N-95 mask when she works in her lab with colleagues. When she runs errands, she uses a more basic cloth mask, but it features three layers of protection. Whether you double up or not, she says you can – and should – combine masking with other precautions, like increasing your distance and ventilation when you have to spend time with others indoors, or just do what you can to limit the time you spend there.

"None of the methods on their own are fail proof, so we add these layers," she said. "That's going to be as important, if not more important."

And if seeing someone wearing two masks feels like double the hassle or double the stress, Arnold says take a breath and keep it all in perspective. 

"We will get to a time and place where we won't have to think about this," she said. "But for the next few months we're going to have to make those tough choices."