Fit matters when it comes to your mask protecting one against the virus that leads to COVID-19, and layering a well-fitting fabric mask over a surgical mask is very likely to prove valuable, according to new findings published Wednesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The findings weren't expected to result in new mask recommendations by the CDC. The general public health agency maintains that everybody age two and older should wear a face covering when out their home.
It also doesn't change the recommendation that primarily medical employees in high-risk environments should rely on N95 masks, which behave as a strong filter against any contamination but is especially harder to breathe and withstand for extended intervals.
Nonetheless, the experiment rolls on a number of the big questions Americans have about how best to protect themselves when mixing in public, such as grocery stores and planes.
The research suggests that when someone"double masks" -- sporting a polypropylene surgical mask with a fabric mask at the top -- and the people around them did exactly the same, the risk of transmitting the virus falls more than 95 percent.
Researchers, who employed two mannequin-like forms to examine vulnerability, seen a similar advantage with tightening one surgical mask around the ears to improve its fit. Employing a hack called a"knot and tuck," the investigators assured the surgical mask fits snugly across the face without openings.
The advantage, though, fell to 80 percent if only one person wore the dual mask and 60% if just 1 person knotted their surgical mask for a tighter fit.
Dr. John Brooks, chief health officer for the CDC's COVID-19 emergency response, said that the research results suggest that combining the close match of a fabric mask using the filtration of a surgical mask is a good alternative.
Additionally, it makes the case that"community masking" -- everyone wearing a mask instead of just a few people -- matters.
"Universal masking is just one of the strongest interventions to control the outbreak, we believe," Brooks told ABC News in an interview.
"When all people conceal, not only does it giving us some personal security. However, by each of us doing that, we're protecting other people," he added.
The CDC has struggled with its public opinion on masks. Early in the pandemic, health officials urged the public not to wear masks because of concerns regarding dire shortages for healthcare employees. They also believed the virus would act as other respiratory viruses and largely transmit when a person shows symptoms such as a cough and fever.
But after research showed the virus which leads to COVID-19 was spreading at an alarming speed through some men and women who never had symptoms, the CDC in April 2020 suddenly shifted gears and began recommending the people wear cloth masks. By June 2020, the World Health Organization agreed that people should wear masks especially when social distancing is not feasible.
In recent weeks, the CDC has been pressed on whether it ought to toughen its recommendation on masks due to new variants of the virus which make it more transmissible. One question was if the CDC might adopt N95 masks for public use and attempt to improve production.
But agency officials have declined to indicate specifically that Americans use the tight-fitting N95s because -- while tremendously effective -- they are particularly difficult to wear for extended periods of time because they are harder to breathe in.
Also, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said wearing an N95 mask probably is not necessary in public places.
"I think if everybody is wearing a mask, if you are wearing it and six feet apart... you have sufficient protective effectiveness in the obstacles of those two masks and the space between you which you probably don't need it," Walensky said Jan. 27 during a CNN Town Hall.
Scientific experiments are likely to shed new light on what's best, but the recommendation on face mats stay the same.
"The conversation is shifting, maybe not the goalposts," Fauci told Fox News on Jan. 27, responding to a question concerning how many masks a person ought to wear.
If everyone wears at least one mask. I think that would be significant."
Brooks warns that people shouldn't read too closely to the particular efficacy numbers from the experimentation. Researchers didn't experiment with different types of fabric materials and other combinations may be equally as useful.
However, the research demonstrated that the principle that if the fit is improved, that enhances the overall efficiency of the means by which the mask plays. And if the mask is much better at stopping the virus, then that in turn can stop viral mutations that undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.
"We want to communicate with the public that if you want to get more out of that mask, then there's a number of low-tech ways you can improve its own performance," Brooks explained.