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Sonoma County residents increasingly wearing two masks to avert coronavirus

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Wearing face coverings in public has become a universal part of life in Sonoma County, actually a requirement since last April. Now there’s a budding trend of “double masking,” for perhaps better protection from the dreaded coronavirus.

Sienna Hornback, 53, of Rohnert Park, started wearing two face masks during shopping trips a few weeks ago, after she heard on the news that doing so may help protect against the potentially more contagious strains of the pandemic disease now circulating in the United States and overseas.

“The more layers you put between your nose and mouth and the outside air, the more protected you are,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Over her surgical masks, Hornback wears a black cloth mask that she regularly sanitizes with alcohol. In the trunk of her hatchback sedan, she keeps a stash of Amy’s Kitchen to-go bags labeled Sunday through Saturday, each containing a disposable blue surgical mask. Her thinking is that by having one mask for every day of the week, it allows ample time for any virus particles that land on a face covering to die before she puts it back on.

“I feel like I’m doing what I need to do and it’s not extra,” she said, of her move to double up on face coverings.

Heeding recent advice from an array of medical experts and influential political leaders, county residents like Hornback are increasingly wearing two masks as an additional safeguard from COVID-19 infection.

Double masking got perhaps its biggest boost last week when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, endorsed wearing two masks in a “Today” show appearance. He said the “common sense” precaution likely would help protect against newly mutated virus strains.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also have been seen wearing extra masks in public appearances. In his first weeks in office, Biden has adopted what public health experts have maintained since soon after the pandemic emerged: mask wearing is key to finally bringing the pandemic to a close. He’s required face coverings on planes, trains, public transportation and on all federal property.

Still, double masking is not an official recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC instead encourages people to wear masks with “two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric,” and to avoid surgical and respirator masks meant for health care workers, even though some health experts have advocated for the widespread adoption of medical-grade masks.

In an interview with the Washington Post this week, Fauci said the federal health agency is considering a study about the effectiveness of double masking.

“The reason (the CDC doesn’t) recommend it now (is because) they make recommendations based on data and science,” Fauci told the Post.

Fauci’s recommendation convinced Jeff and Catherine Doran, 67 and 70, respectively, to start wearing two masks instead of one. The Sebastopol couple also has been reading other news articles about virus-safety protocols and closely monitoring the latest public health guidance.

“There’s just been a lot of talk about it,” Jeff Doran said, of adding a second face covering.

For now, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase is advising local residents that one mask provides sufficient defense against contracting the virus, though she said there’s likely no downside to wearing an additional face covering.

“It may be onerous for the person, but as long as you’re able to tolerate wearing two masks, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t,” Mase said.

The health officer led the way on local residents’ initially donning masks 10 months ago when she enacted a public health order requiring face coverings when people go into any public building, or when outside and unable to remain six feet away from others.

“These facial coverings are meant to protect the public from you,” Mase said in April. “What you’re doing is ensuring that if you had coronavirus but you are asymptomatic, you’re not giving it to other people.”

She cautioned this week that a cloth or paper mask never should be worn underneath an N95 respirator mask because it could break the seal around a person’s face, which is essential to keeping virus droplets from spreading airborne and potentially infecting more residents.

Swartzberg agreed with Mase that wearing a single mask ― in particular a blue paper surgical mask ― should be enough of a preventive step for most people. But he said another face covering adds protection, particularly those worried about or vulnerable to catching the virus.

No matter how many masks someone chooses to wear, Swartzberg stressed masks should fit snugly above the nose and below the chin.

Whenever Ernie Carpenter, 78, of Sebastopol, leaves the house, he dons an N95 mask underneath a green, black and white camouflage neck gaiter. He started double masking about a month ago when COVID-19 cases in the county were skyrocketing as part of the winter surge.

Since he’s at a high risk of contracting the virus because of his age, he tries to limit going out in public, even to the grocery store.

“The masks give me a greater peace of mind,” Carpenter said, during a recent outing to Whole Foods at Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa. “COVID is extremely contagious, and keeping the distancing and the masks seems to work. None of my immediate friends, and we’re all pretty reclusive and wear masks, have gotten it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

For information about how to schedule a vaccine, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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