With many mask mandates coming to an end, "one-way maskers"—those who wear a mask when most people around them don't—are becoming more common. And while experts say one-way masking can help, particularly as Americans wait for a possible appeal to the recently struck down mask mandate, the benefits of being the only one in a mask are limited.
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Does one-way masking work?
With many mask mandates being dropped, one-way maskers are wondering whether they’re protected. Experts say the practice comes with limited benefits, as having everyone wear a mask significantly cuts down the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
"One-way masking isn't doing that," said Kristen Coleman, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. "We're not maximizing the benefits of masks [if] only a proportion of the population" is wearing them.
However, if you choose to wear a mask, you should make sure it's the right one, experts said—specifically an N95 respiratory or something similar, like a KN95 or KF94.
"The only thing I recommend is something like an N95 respirator," said Lisa Brosseau, a bioaerosol scientist and industrial hygienist who's a consultant for the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
However, according to Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, if you don't have any other options, surgical masks will work better than cloth masks, as surgical masks have an electrostatic charge that traps incoming particles.
But wearing a mask doesn't suddenly make a high-risk environment low risk. "Just wearing a mask — it helps, but it is not going to turn being indoors into something that has no risk," said Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosols scientist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
It's also important to know how high infection rates are in your community, according to Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins Health System.
"That number needs to be in the single digits — somewhere between one to five cases per 100,000 — before we've reached that low level where the probability is such that you're less likely to encounter someone with the virus," she said.
Recent mask mandate repeal could be appealed
On Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down the Biden administration's mask mandate for airplanes and mass transit, arguing CDC overstepped its authority with the requirement. This led major airlines and other transportation services to no longer require their staff or passengers to wear masks.
However, the Department of Justice on Tuesday said it intends to appeal the ruling if CDC deems it necessary, saying the department and CDC "disagree with the district court's decision and will appeal, subject to [CDC's] conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health."
Experts said the decision to appeal could be risky for CDC and could potentially undermine its authority.
"You are in the position of having two horrible choices," said Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health law at Georgetown University. "One choice is to risk forever taking away [CDC's] powers if this goes up to the 11th Circuit and ultimately the Supreme Court."
"And on the other hand," Gostin added, "if you let what I consider to be a lawless decision by this judge go forward, then CDC is going to be gun-shy about doing things that it deems effective for the protection of the American public."
"As tempting as it is to appeal it, because it's a ridiculous ruling, the bigger issue is that you need to reserve the ability for the [CDC] to act in case we have a big outbreak in the fall or winter," said Andy Slavitt, a former senior health adviser to President Joe Biden who helped run the administration's Covid-19 response. He added that ending up in a higher court or the Supreme Court "could really damage [CDC's] ability to respond to the pandemic in the future."
However, Rich Besser, a former acting CDC director, said he believes the administration should appeal the ruling.
"What worries me is the fact that this judge is saying that [CDC] doesn't have the authority to protect the health of people in America as they best see fit," he said. If the ruling stands, Besser said it would be "really damaging, because going into the next event you've got this ruling there and it hasn't been contested." (Stolberg/Savage, New York Times, 4/19; Stone, "Goats and Soda," NPR, 4/19)