The super contagious omicron variant is spreading across the United States, causing a dramatic increase in cases and overwhelming many hospital systems. In addition to urging Americans to get vaccinated and booster vaccinated, public health officials are recommending that people trade in their cloth masks for higher-quality medical masks.
What exactly does this suggestion mean?
At a recent hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, senior public health officials sported different types of masks. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wore a surgical mask under a cloth mask, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, wore an N95 respirator.
Some local governments and organizations have their own rules. Los Angeles County, for example, will require starting January 17 that employers provide N95 or KN95 masks to employees.
In late December, the Mayo Clinic began requiring that all visitors and patients wear surgical masks instead of the cloth versions. The University of Arizona has banned cloth masks and asked everyone on campus to wear higher quality masks.
Questions about the protection provided by masks against covid, whether cloth, surgical or high-end medical-grade, have been the subject of debate and discussion since the early days of the pandemic.
But, as science changes, so do views.
The CDC hasn’t updated its mask guidance since October 2021, before omicron came out. That guide does not recommend the use of an N95 respirator, it only states that the masks must be at least two layers, fit well and contain a wire that fits in the nose. News reports indicate that the agency may soon recommend regular use of an N95 or KN95 respirator.
Multiple experts would welcome the change, saying this is the right time. But they don’t dismiss cloth masks, because, they say that wearing a cloth mask is better than not wearing any.
“From what we know about how COVID is transmitted and about omicron, wearing a higher quality mask is really critical to stopping the spread of this variant,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, academic dean at Brown University School of Public Health. .
A large-scale, real-world study conducted in Bangladesh and published in September 2021 showed that surgical masks are more effective in preventing the transmission of covid-19 than cloth masks.
Therefore, an easy strategy to improve protection is to place a surgical mask under the fabric, which provides a better layer of protection. Surgical masks can be bought online at a relatively low price and can be reused for about a week.
Ranney said he advises people who choose to wear layers to wear the best quality mask, such as surgical, closer to the face, and the lowest quality mask on the outside.
If you have to recycle, Dr. Stephen Luby, a professor of infectious diseases at Stanford University and one of the authors of the Bangladesh mask study, said you can also wash your surgical masks and reuse them.
“During the study, we told the participants that they could wash the surgical masks with laundry detergent and water, and reuse them,” Luby said. “You lose some of the effect of electrostatic charging, but they still outperformed cloth masks.” (Part of the way surgical masks effectively filter particles is through electrostatic charging on the mask.)
But experts say wearing a KN95 or N95 mask is the best protection against omicron, as these masks are very effective at filtering out viral particles.
The “95” in the names refers to the 95% filtration efficiency of masks against particles of a certain size. N95 masks are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, while KN95s are regulated by the Chinese government and KN94s by the South Korean government.
At the start of the pandemic, Americans were urged not to buy surgical masks or N95s, to ensure there was a sufficient supply for healthcare workers. But now there are enough for everyone.
So if the person has the resources to upgrade to an N95, KN95 or KN94 mask, they definitely should, said Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. While these models are more expensive and can be more uncomfortable, the investment is well worth the security they provide, he explained.
“It’s a much more contagious virus, so there’s a much smaller margin of error for activities you could previously do without getting infected,” Wen said. “We have to increase our protection in every way, because now, by omicron, everything is more risky.”
Wen also said that while these masks are characterized as single-use, unless in a healthcare setting, the KN95 and N95 can be used more than once. She uses her KN95 herself for more than a week.
Another important thing to note is that there are many counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks being sold online, so consumers need to be careful when ordering them and make sure they only get them from a legitimate supplier.
The CDC maintains a list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators. Wirecutter and The Strategist have published guides to buying approved KN95 and KN94 masks. Ranney also recommends checking out the website, Project N95, or engineer Aaron Collins’ “Mask Nerd” YouTube channel.
But even if you update the masks, you’re still worried about omicron, the first thing you can do is get vaccinated and get a booster, said Dr. Neal Chaisson, an assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
“There has been a lot of talk about people who have been vaccinated getting infected with omicron,” Chaisson said. “But I’ve been working on intensive care and probably 95% of the patients we’re seeing right now didn’t follow the advice to get vaccinated.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is the newsroom of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Surveys, KHN is one of the three main programs of KFF. KFF is a nonprofit organization that provides health information to the nation.