Here’s what a prominent Boston doctor means when he says we need ‘better masks’

“We need to do every intervention better. That includes getting more people to wear any mask; and to up the standard on our masks too.”

Dr. Abraar Karan is breaking down why higher quality masks are needed as the COVID-19 pandemic continues — and why setting higher standards for masks makes sense, even as some continue to resist mask use altogether. 

The physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been advocating for months for the United States to take up a national high-filtration mask program that would see the distribution of better quality masks, such as medical masks like N95s, to households across the country. 

On Tuesday, the Boston doctor wrote on Twitter that he thinks of masks like any other mitigation effort in the fight against COVID-19 that needs improvement.

“Better is better,” Karan wrote. “Unregulated cloth masks [are] not the bar to settle on.”

Federal health officials, including Dr. Rochelle Walenksy, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the former infectious disease chief for Massachusetts General Hospital, have said the public doesn’t need to wear N95 masks, and that their focus is on getting more Americans wearing masks. 


In response to that argument, Karan said work should be ongoing to do both — get more people to wear masks and get higher quality face coverings to the public. 

“Getting ‘anti-maskers’ to wear a mask is actually [in my opinion] a harder problem than getting someone who already believes in masks a #BetterMask (which helps them around those who don’t),” he wrote. 

The effort for better masks has “always been about reducing risk” for COVID-19, he said. 

The doctor pointed out that in clinical settings, health care workers are wearing medical grade masks with at least three layers or N95s — not unregulated cloth masks. And even in those settings, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. 

“We are calling for smarter mask policies,” Karan said. “Are #BetterMasks needed for every single setting? Alone or distanced outdoors? No. We are specifically saying for high risk people, high exposure workers, or when regular risk people enter higher risk indoor crowded settings.”

The Boston doctor acknowledged that even better masks are not a “silver bullet” that will stop the pandemic alone. That’s because masks, like other interventions for preventing spread of the virus, can’t be done perfectly all the time. 


“That’s the point,” he said. “We need to do every intervention better. That includes getting more people to wear any mask; and to up the standard on our masks too.”


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