Gov. Cox says Utahns should ‘upgrade’ their coronavirus masks now. What does that mean?

Make sure your mask fits well and wear it right, Utah doctors urge. And double masking could be for you.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Shoppers and commuters wear masks in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. With a more contagious coronavirus variant circulating in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox is suggesting that Utahns upgrade their masks.

With the more contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 circulating in Utah and widespread vaccination months away, Gov. Spencer Cox says he would “encourage people, if you can, to upgrade the quality of your masks.”

Utah is working with the Biden administration, he added at a Thursday news conference, “on getting more and better masks out to people ... The right quality mask protects the user as well as those around them.”

So should Utahns double up like inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, who wore a plain mask under her sparkly red rhinestone one? Or set aside their cloth facial fashions for medical-quality gear?

Double masking often means wearing a surgical-style mask under a cloth mask. And it does have potential benefits for those who want to do all they can to protect themselves, or anyone in a higher risk environment like public transportation, said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at University of Utah Health.

Public health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has been explaining in interviews about double masking that “the more material, the more filters, the more virus that’s going to get trapped in those filters,” Vinik said.

“In addition, double masking does create a better fit,” Vinik said in an online briefing hosted by the U.

“On the other hand, what we know is, masking works,” Vinik emphasized. “And more than anything, our message to the public is, wear a mask and wear a mask properly. Wear it over your nose ... wear it all the way under your chin.”

With the arrival of COVID-19 variants, the conversation around masking is shifting to, “OK, how do we make masks more effective?” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare.

“Up until now, it’s just been ‘wear a mask.’ There hasn’t been any kind of discussion about, is it a quality mask? Is it a mask that actually fits on your face?” Stenehjem said. “Is it one that has a nose bridge, and actually stays there? Or does it move when you talk?”

People need to ensure their masks fit well and offer multiple layers of material to create an effective barrier, he said. “If that means wearing a double mask, or a surgical mask with something over it, I think that’s a great way to go.”

During a community update offered by Intermountain, Stenehjem also broke down the types of masks available and their effectiveness.

N95 masks • These are costly, in short supply, and needed by health care workers who are caring for people with coronavirus, Stenehjem said. “An N95 mask is a very tight-fitting mask; you have to have it fit to your face to ensure that it has a functional seal,” he said. They are the best masks for preventing the transmission of respiratory droplets that carry the virus, he said.

Right now, with all personal protective equipment for Utah caregivers — N95 masks, gowns, gloves — “we’re in a pretty decent spot,” he added. Health care providers have to be prepared for any possible future surges, he noted, so they are careful to maintain their supplies.

KN95 masks • These masks, which are becoming more available, aren’t fitted to an individual’s face, Stenehjem said. “They are still a very good mask, though, in terms of preventing respiratory transmission.”

Hospital-grade surgical masks • This is the type of mask Stenehjem wears daily to talk with hospitalized patients and even care for coronavirus patients who are not on a ventilator or undergoing respiratory procedures, he said. They are meant for health care workers and can be worn all day, he said.

Consumer surgical masks • Standard “one and done” surgical masks that can be found at Costco and other outlets are the next step down, he said.

Pandemic-era masks • “And then you have all these other masks that have been created, right, whether it be through Cotopaxi or through bandanas or through buffs,” he said. Their quality can be unknown, yet “that’s what the majority of people wear,” he said.

Besides double masking, Utahns thinking about improving their mask quality could consider the disposable, daily surgical masks, he said, or any masks with multiple layers, that have a good seal over your nose, that cover your face and fit well.

For now, the Utah Department of Health has not changed its guidelines for mask users, a spokesman said.

“We recommend people wear two or more layer cloth masks that cover the nose and mouth,” he said in an email. “There is no recommendation that people wear surgical, N95, or KN95, although if people want to do so that is certainly their prerogative.