The contagious omicron variant is spreading across the United States, causing a dramatic increase in cases and saturating many hospital systems. In addition to urging Americans to get vaccinated and get the booster dose, public health officials recommend that people switch from their cloth masks to 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 cloth versions. The University of Arizona has banned cloth masks and asked everyone on campus to wear higher-quality masks.
Questions about the protection that covid-19 masks provide, whether they are 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 points of view.
The CDC hasn’t updated its skin guide since October 2021, before omicron emerged.
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 of the University’s School of Public Health. Brown.
A large-scale, real-world study conducted in Bangladesh and published in September 2021 showed that surgical masks are more effective in preventing COVID-19 transmission 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 effects of electrostatic charge, but they still outperformed cloth masks. ” (Part of the way surgical masks effectively filter out particles is through an electrostatic charge on the mask.)
But experts argue that 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 the masks against particles of a certain size. The N95 masks are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, while the KN95 are regulated by the Chinese Government and the KN94 by the Government of South Korea.
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 is a much more contagious virus, so there is a much smaller margin of error regarding the activities that you could do before without becoming infected,” Wen said. “We have to increase our protection in every way, because now, by omicron, everything is riskier.”
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.
CDC maintains a list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators. Wirecutter and The Strategist have published guides to buying approved KN95 and KN94 skins. Ranney also recommends checking the website, Project N95, or engineer Aaron Collins’ “Mask Nerd” YouTube channel.
But, if you even upgrade your masks, you’re still worried about omicron, the first thing to do is get vaccinated and get the 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 becoming infected with omicron,” Chaisson said. “But I have been working in intensive care and probably 95% of the patients we are seeing at the moment did not follow the advice to get vaccinated.