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Ask the Expert: Masks, COVID-19 variants and the end of the pandemic

Feb 2, 2021

COVID-19 is still leading the news each day. Cases continue to rise in many parts of the world, and Indiana has now seen more than 628,000 cases. New variants, vaccines, multiple masks – there are new questions and concerns almost daily.

We asked a few of these questions to IU public health expert Graham McKeen. McKeen, assistant university director of public and environmental health, serves on a number of committees leading the university’s COVID-19 response.

Question: Should I be wearing double masks?

Answer: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is just starting to review data on doubling up on your masks. I assume that two is better than one, but it also needs to be breathable and something you’re able to wear as long as needed.

And, obviously, some masks are better than others. Any mask should have multiple layers to help filter and block viruses from getting into the air. The masks provided from IU back in August, for example, have multiple layers of fabric and were tested against a number of others on the market. We found these do a good job of being breathable, being comfortable and not allowing many particles out in the air.

The most important thing with any mask is wearing it properly. It should fit over your nose and then under your chin so both your nose and mouth are completely covered, without gaping. Proper fit is what will help prevent the virus from getting out into the air.

Q: Should I wear a surgical mask instead of a cloth mask?

A: Surgical masks definitely have a time and place, but they don’t necessarily need to be worn all the time. These kinds of masks are fluid resistant and therefore better prevent droplets from coughs or sneezes from getting into the air. You might consider using a surgical mask in situations when maintaining that critical physical distancing is difficult – like on public transportation, for example. You might also notice that many doctor’s offices have you wear one of these types of masks, or if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, your health care provider may recommend you wear a surgical mask instead of a cloth mask while you have symptoms.

Again, with any mask, the key is having one that fits and is worn correctly and consistently. It should have multiple layers of tightly woven fabric, and ideally a flexible nose bridge, and should stay in place while you’re talking.

Q: Should I be concerned about the variants of the virus that causes COVID-19? Are the vaccines effective against these?

A: We are keeping an eye on a few variants of interest, including one in Brazil, one in South Africa, one in the United Kingdom and then some in the U.S. Early data shows that these are more contagious and might be more severe and deadly.

We should still be concerned about COVID-19 in general, though. The more spread we have, the more mutations and evolution will occur, so it continues to be in our best interest to prevent the spread of this disease everywhere possible. We’re still seeing more than 15,000 new cases each week in the state. We need to continue to take this virus seriously, with or without any new variants.

I’ve been focused on this virus for more than a year now. I understand we’re all getting burned out on the precautions, and the shock of new cases seems to be starting to wear off, but COVID-19 is in all of our communities, and we need to continue to be vigilant. Because we have vaccines that are now being deployed, our actions to prevent illness now can literally save a life in the very near future. It no longer feels like we are just delaying the inevitable, as we’ve had these successive and increasingly worsening waves of cases.

As far as vaccine effectiveness with the new variants, early studies are showing that the two currently approved vaccines are effective. It looks like they’re likely slightly less effective on these variants, but that’s not to say they are ineffective. The approved vaccines we have right now are extraordinarily effective against COVID-19 as well as the current variants and essentially will guarantee that someone who is vaccinated won’t be hospitalized or die from COVID-19. Also, having these vaccines and this technology in place now means that it will be easier and faster to develop any necessary modifications or boosters in the future.

Q: Is it safe to do basic errands now, like grocery shopping or going into a retail store?

A: Assuming you can maintain physical distance from others and everyone is masking, going to the grocery store or a retail store remains a low- to medium-risk activity. The duration of close contact with others may be more important now with more transmissible variants around. The safest option, however, continues to be ordering items online and having them delivered or picking them up curbside with no contact.

Q: How will we know when the pandemic is over?

A: I know everyone is looking for a specific date when we can officially say, “The pandemic is over!” Viruses, unfortunately, don’t quite work that way. Much as we saw the virus spread across the world when this started, we will likely see the virus start to fade across the globe as more and more people are vaccinated and health and safety guidelines like masking are followed more diligently. While climbs up the curve in a pandemic can be fast and steep, the waning of a pandemic is always a longer decline from the peak, and there is now more variability and unpredictability due to variants.

It’s likely SARS-CoV-2 will always be with us. We’ve only eradicated one infectious disease ever – smallpox – so it’s unlikely we’ll ever completely get rid of the virus that causes COVID-19.

But I do think there will be specific signals that will clearly show us that the pandemic is fading. Things like a significant and continuous decline in the number of new cases each week will show that we’re having less and less community spread of COVID-19 and an eventual achievement of a level of herd immunity that will prevent large outbreaks.

I expect SARS-CoV-2 to become more like the other coronaviruses that cause common colds, and likely just mildly impacting young children once adult populations have more immunity through vaccination and exposures.


IU Newsroom

Amanda Roach

Executive Director of Media Relations & Editorial Content

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