One mask may not be enough to keep from catching a more infectious COVID-19 variant, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“When you have something that’s that transmissible, now that gap in the mask could be an issue,” Carlson said. “It wasn’t necessarily an issue before, but now we know that we can likely contract the virus by having been exposed to a smaller amount of the virus.”
President Joe Biden has been layering masks for weeks, while transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg and poet Amanda Gorman each doubled up during Jan. 20’s inauguration ceremony, according to CNN. Considering that Dallas County surpassed 2,000 coronavirus deaths on Sunday, public health experts are recommending that residents do the same.
Most Texans are ready to get back to regular life after coping with COVID-19 for nearly a year, but Carlson said that normalcy can’t return until the disease stops spreading.
Masking isn’t just about preventing transmissions of the latest variant, Carlson said: It’s also about thwarting future mutations from happening in the first place.
“Eventually there will be mutation that outsmarts the vaccine, and we have to make sure that we have squelched this virus before we get to that point,” she said. “And the way we squelch it is by stopping transmissions, because with every single transmission, there is another chance for mutation.”
A new variant of the virus was reported in the United Kingdom last month, and although the current vaccines appear to work against it, scientists believe it's up to 70% more contagious than its predecessor. Two weeks ago, the strain was identified in Dallas County.
Variants have cropped up in other countries, too, including Brazil, Denmark, South Africa, Thailand and Germany, Carlson said. The latter two saw their versions arise independently, meaning they originated there rather than through a foreign traveler.
“We’ve got to put our masks on and stop this now and get vaccinated or ... this nightmare’s going to happen all over again.” – Dr. Erin Carlson
“This virus is on the run,” Carlson said. “And the way it does that is the more it copies, the more mistakes can be made in that genetic code when it copies over.”
Viruses evolve in an effort to survive. They operate like a criminal who is attempting to dodge police custody, Carlson said; the closer the cops get to closing in, the more disguises it puts on to avoid extinction.
People can prevent COVID-19 from evading capture by wearing two masks, Carlson said, although some may find it harder to breathe. For those who can’t bear to double up, she recommends wearing a well-fitting nose-wire mask made with tightly woven fabric that fully conforms to their face. After that, they should insert a good filter, which one can make themselves by cutting up a vacuum bag or HEPA filter.
Anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric are perpetuating spread, said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“You have this group on the far right which is protesting against masks and contact tracing and social distancing and now vaccines,” Hotez said during an interview with Democracy Now! “And so, this is a very lethal and toxic mix that we have in Texas, and that’s why Texas is a leader, in a negative way, in terms of number of deaths.”
As of Thursday, Texas was the state with the third-greatest number of COVID-related deaths at 35,168, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the early stages of the pandemic, scientists knew that masks protected others from spreading the disease but not necessarily from catching it. Now, Carlson said, we know that there's “significant protection” for the mask-wearer, too.
Public health experts don't yet know for certain whether a person who has been fully vaccinated can still transmit the disease to others, she said. People should continue to wear masks even after they’ve received their second dose; just because there’s a vaccine “doesn’t make us in the free and clear."
Unless herd immunity is achieved, whereby enough of the population has become immune to the virus via infection or inoculation, people will continue to transmit it, she said. As long as it’s spreading, it’s also mutating, and if it keeps mutating, it will eventually become unrecognizable to the current vaccines.
And no one wants that.
“We’ve got to put our masks on and stop this now and get vaccinated,” Carlson said, “or it’s going to keep going, and this nightmare’s going to happen all over again.”