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The future of face masks

A year into the pandemic, wearing a mask has become second nature, like leaving the house with a wallet or a purse. It’s proven that when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, masks work. Of the masks widely available to the public, KN95 masks are the most effective, filtering up to 95 percent of particles in the air. Multi-layer cloth masks can block up to 50 to 70 percent of fine droplets and particles we release into the environment and limit the spread of droplets and aerosolized particles they don’t capture. 

In many Asian countries, wearing a mask was already the norm pre-pandemic, especially during cold and flu season. Here, we explore a few reasons we’re likely to see mask-wearing stick around in the U.S. for the long term. For a local perspective, we also asked fellow New Englanders to share their thoughts on the current state of mask-wearing and how it may evolve in the future.

“I think we have seen mask cut down flu and cold cases. It may be standard practice in nursing homes. You see people in Asian countries with a mask on any time they get the sniffles. I think we have become more accepting of this for the better.”

— Pam L., Bath, Maine

Couple In Shop Buying Groceries Wearing Face Mask Choosing Food Goods Walking With Shopping Cart In Supermarket Store

Wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of more than just COVID-19 

As the 2020–2021 flu season comes to a close, numbers are showing that seasonal influenza was essentially nonexistent. At the end of February, labs reporting to the CDC had just 1,585 samples test positive for a flu virus of any kind. Over the same time period during the previous flu season, there were more than 183,000 positive samples. While factors like decreased contact from remote learning and office closures, taking COVID precautions like social distancing and handwashing, and increased flu vaccine distribution played a role, so did wearing a mask. And while all pandemic precautions won’t remain in place permanently, there is something to be said for how communities can maintain a level of protection, especially when it comes to wearing masks, to help fight against potentially harmful viruses in the future.

“I don’t mind putting one on in certain places in order to not make people feel uncomfortable.”

— Darren B., Bow, N.H.

Businesses continue to look to the CDC for guidance 

While many restless Americans are eager to get back to some degree of normalcy, we can expect needing to keep masks handy in order to go about once ordinary activities, like shopping and travel. While many states begin to reopen and lift mask restrictions, private companies are free to impose their own regulations. Macy’s, Target, and Kohl’s were among those who recently stated they’d continue to follow CDC guidance mandating that employees, and in some cases both employees and customers, wear masks for the time being. 

“States that do not have current mask mandates do make me nervous to travel, and concerned about a resurge with the new strains.”

— Moe B., Weymouth, MA

What’s more, the CDC recently issued a new order that requires masks to be worn at transportation hubs and on public conveyances, such as airplanes, ships, buses, ferries, trains, ride-shares, and taxis. This order mandates that all travelers and personnel wear masks while waiting and boarding, and for the duration of their travel into, within, and out of the United States. 

Men traveling in the bus smiling behind a mask.

Masks continue to protect us while we’re learning how the vaccine works against COVID-19 and the virus persists

Just four months in from the start of vaccine distribution, we’re still in the process of understanding how the vaccine affects our collective protection, including if people can still spread the virus after they’ve been vaccinated and how many people have to be vaccinated before most can be considered protected. As of April 2021, more than 163.1 million doses have been administered, fully vaccinating 19% of the total U.S. population. That’s hopeful news, but there is still a long way to go before the majority is vaccinated and new COVID-19 cases remain high at nearly 63,500 per day in early April. Keeping our masks on is one of our most effective tools for slowing the spread and protecting ourselves and others while the pandemic persists.

“We need to work together instead of everyone doing what they want. The best way to beat this is to do it as one.”

— Debbie G., Swampscott, Mass.

Wearing a mask increases protection against new viral variants

Multiple variants of the COVID-19 virus have already been documented around the world, including in the United States. And while some viral mutations surface and then disappear, others can endure. New variants detected in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa have been shown to spread more easily than the original coronavirus. This could lead to an increase in cases, which would increase pressure on our health care systems. To help combat the spread of new viral variants and slow further viral evolution, continued mask-wearing is encouraged. Recently, the CDC also released an update on double masking to improve protection.

“In the upcoming years, I think the medical community will gain further knowledge on COVID, the vaccination immunity, and whether it reflects viral similarities such as the flu antibody response or mutation rate. With the future being so unknown, it seems that more cautious parts of the country will continue to wear masks.”

— Mike J., Middleton, Mass.

Should you consider double-masking?

The benefits of double masking, or layering a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask, are twofold. First, it improves the fit of a mask preventing respiratory droplets potentially containing the virus from leaving or entering the mask. Second, it increases the mask’s filtration power making it difficult for potential virus-containing droplets to travel through to the mouth and nose. Here’s a breakdown of the efficacy of double masking according to the CDC’s studies:

In a coughing simulation…

• The double mask blocked 85.4% of aerosol particles compared to 51.4% and 56.1% for a cloth and a surgical mask respectively.

In a breathing simulation…

• When the source was wearing a double mask and the recipient was not, the aerosol exposure of the unmasked recipient was reduced by 82.2%.

• When the recipient was wearing a double mask and the source was not, the aerosol exposure of the double-masked recipient was reduced by 83%.

• When both the source and the recipient wore a double mask, aerosol exposure was reduced by 96.4 percent

As ready as we are to hang up our masks for good, they continue to protect us and those around us against COVID-19 and its new variants, as well as other transmissible illnesses. With a year of learnings behind us and a future we can’t predict, we can be sure that masks will protect us and our loved ones from the challenges ahead. 

“It’s hard to think of life ‘after COVID.’ I think wearing a mask will always be a part of how we conduct ourselves going forward. Just like the flu shot, we’ll get the vaccine and probably keep wearing masks.”

— Carrie R., Brighton, Mass.

Masks continue to prove they’re a valuable asset for the long haul, protecting us and those around us against COVID-19 and other transmissible illnesses. With a year of learnings behind us and a future we can’t predict, it may be better to proceed cautiously and hang onto your collection of masks for protection beyond the pandemic. And in the meantime, continue to mask up to limit the spread of COVID-19, its variants, and other contagious respiratory infections. 

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.