University of Iowa public health experts say double masking could prevent spread of new COVID-19 variants

In accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, two University of Iowa public health experts say wearing two masks can help prevent the spread of the U.K. COVID-19 strain.


Photo Illustration by Kate Heston

Brady Osborne, News Reporter

University of Iowa experts say wearing two masks could be more effective in slowing the spread of new COVID-19 variants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing two masks, either a disposable mask under a cloth mask, or a cloth mask with multiple layers.

Three new variants — from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil — are believed to be more transmissible, which is why the CDC is pushing for more safety precautions.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, the first three cases of the recent COVID-19 variant, which comes from the United Kingdom, have been recorded in Iowa, with two of the cases coming from Johnson County.

The UI College of Public Health released a question and answer article on Feb. 8 about wearing two masks, and its effectiveness in mitigating the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

The author of the article, UI Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health T. Renee Anthony, said she believes that the main problem with wearing one mask is that it usually doesn’t create an effective enough seal around the face, which is what prevents all of the potentially infected droplets from getting in or out.

RELATED: United Kingdom strand of COVID-19 found in Johnson County

“The problem is, any time there’s a gap in the mask, what air is filtered as you breathe in as well as what you breathe out, doesn’t necessarily go through that filter,” Anthony said. “Putting another layer on top of that helps seal that surgical mask to your face tighter. That is really one of the benefits of wearing a double mask.”

Anthony said there are some concerns over the ability to breathe with two masks on, which is why it is recommended to wear a surgical mask with a cloth mask over it in order to be able to breathe properly.

UI Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health Patrick O’Shaughnessy said while it’s beneficial to wear two masks, it’s not as black and white as it seems.

“Unfortunately, we have to play this competing interest between protecting ourselves and being able to breathe comfortably,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I’m all for double masking, with the caveat that there are folks out there that are asthmatic or that have lung conditions that need to be considerate of the amount of effort it takes to breathe.”

This new CDC recommendation to double mask comes at the same time as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds relaxing statewide restrictions. Iowa City is still enforcing its mask mandate until May 31.

The new state proclamation states that businesses in the state no longer have to require masks or limit their operations due to the pandemic. The new state guidelines remove all mandates from businesses, as well as restrictions on gatherings.

UI first-year student in the College of Public Health Montala Carruthers said she thinks wearing a mask is important, but believes that the university should just recommend it, rather than deploy punishment for not following guidelines.

“They should recommend it just because we should follow CDC guidelines and what they think is going to keep us safe, but at the same time, you can’t force people to wear a mask and can’t force people to social distance,” Carruthers said. “All the university can do is give us the knowledge and tell us about what’s going on.”

UI graduate student Claire Rittenhouse, who is studying epidemiology, said that a clear mandate of wearing masks more effectively encourages people to wear masks, and ultimately prevents virus spread. She’s critical of the state lifting pandemic precautions, citing that the new proclamation doesn’t follow CDC guidelines.

“The CDC isn’t doing it because they want to rain down on our fun, they want to do it because they think that it’s best for the world’s health, especially for the nation,” Rittenhouse said. “I think that if anyone were to look into why the CDC is recommending double masking, they’d see that their research is sound, and they know what they are talking about.”

Editor’s note: This article’s headline was updated to clarify that University of Iowa public health experts say wearing two masks can help stop the spread of the virus. The University of Iowa itself hasn’t issued recommendations or guidelines to double mask.