Which mask should you wear during an Omicron surge?

key takeaways

  • Cloth masks may not provide adequate protection amid a surge in Omicron, experts say.
  • Compared to cloth masks and surgical masks, N95 respirators are the most protective against COVID-19.
  • There are many techniques to improve the effectiveness of the mask, such as double covering, using a mask assembler, or knotting the ear straps to improve the fit.

Earlier this week, an official said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was weighing whether to update their mask guidance to recommend switching to N95 or KN95 masks for improved protection against variants of Omicron.

However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that there are no plans to change mask guidelines to recommend that Americans wear higher-quality masks. The agency is sticking to its “better to wear a mask than no mask” guideline.

But due to the surge in Omicron, experts stress that cloth masks may no longer provide adequate protection. It may be time to upgrade your masking program.

Below is a comparison of cloth masks, surgical masks, and KN95 and N95 masks for virus protection.

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Effectiveness of face masks on Omicron

“The increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant may be due to several factors: the higher amount of virus produced by infected individuals, the lower amount of virus required to infect susceptible individuals, easier airborne transmission, or a combination of factors . above,” Vincent Hsu, MD, executive director of infection control at AdventHealth, told VigorTip. “For whatever reason, this has increased the need for individuals to protect themselves with better masks.”

Wearing any mask is definitely better than nothing, but with the popular Omicron variant, it’s important to wear an effective mask that will adequately protect you.

cloth mask

Cloth masks are reusable face shields that vary widely in material, fit, and quality, making it difficult to gauge their overall effectiveness. Some cloth masks can filter small infectious droplets and particles (less than 10 microns), while multi-layer and higher thread count masks can filter almost 50% of fine particles less than 1 micron.

If you choose a cloth face covering, it is important that it fits your nose and mouth without any gaps on the sides of your face. Try putting it under a bright light source to check for layers of tightly woven fabric. If a cloth face covering doesn’t block light, or if it has an exhalation valve, it won’t provide protection against COVID-19.

According to a study published in 2021 Peer J, the practice of repeated washing and drying will gradually reduce the filtration efficiency of the cloth mask. The researchers found that after the fourth wash cycle, the efficiency of the cloth masks dropped by 20 percent.

“Many cloth masks don’t provide a visible seal and don’t filter out viral particles,” Hsu said. Given the proliferation of Omicron variants, it’s best to choose a face shield that will better protect you.

surgical mask

Surgical masks, also known as disposable or medical procedure masks, are made of non-woven fabrics with different layers. You should not wear more than one surgical mask at a time as it will disrupt the fit of your face.

“Surgical masks have been shown to provide better protection than cloth masks,” Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told VigorTip. Unlike cloth masks, stretch Surgical masks do not change their pore size.

A 2021 study published in science Surgical masks were found to be more effective than cloth masks in reducing symptomatic COVID-19 infection at the community level, especially among people 60 years of age and older.

KN95 or N95 mask

An N95 mask is a type of respirator that can filter up to 95% of particulate matter in the air. These masks specifically meet the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) air filtration standards. KN95 masks are respirators that also provide up to 95% air filtration, but they meet China-specific standards.

“While they may look similar, N95 masks are completely different devices than surgical or isolation masks,” Gonsenhauser said. “Material and construction, as well as fit to the face, vary in almost every way. Unlike standard face masks, the N95 is considered a respirator.”

A typical surgical mask is more of a sneeze shield, where droplets are captured by a physical barrier, but very small particles can spread around the open side of the mask. He explained that when properly worn, N95 masks do not allow airflow around the sides of the mask, effectively filtering the air passing through the mask and blocking much smaller particles.

A 2020 study published in scientific progress Fourteen different face shields or face shield substitutes were evaluated to analyze the transmission of respiratory droplets during normal speech. The researchers found that less than 0.1 percent of droplets were transmitted through a suitable N95 mask when the wearer spoke.

“There are currently no recommendations for N95 masks,” Gonsenhauser said. “However, by definition, N95 masks better protect the wearer from aerosol and airborne pathogens. Evidence has not been provided to suggest that this leads to better outcomes for the general population.”

Remember, you can only use one N95 or KN95 mask at a time, and it should not be combined with other masks.

“Given the higher infectivity of the Omicron variant, we need a more efficient filter because fewer viral particles can cause infection than previous variants,” says infectious disease epidemiologist and Yale University Sten H. Vermund, MD, dean of the School of Public Health, told VigorTip. “Highly vulnerable individuals — such as those who are unvaccinated or immunosuppressed — may choose N95.”

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Which mask should you use?

Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation, so it’s important to carry out a risk assessment when deciding which mask to use, Hsu said.

“In crowded or high-risk situations indoors, such as on airplanes, the KN95 or N95 is obviously required for additional protection,” he added. “But these better-fitting masks can also cause discomfort when worn for extended periods of time. In low-risk situations where you’re far away from others, surgical masks may provide adequate protection.”

On social media, there is a circulating image from an article Wall Street Journal It compares the estimated time required to spread an infectious dose of COVID-19. The data used in the graph was released in spring 2021, which means it does not yet take into account the Omicron variant. Experts say the chart may not be entirely accurate.

“This chart may underestimate the value of cloth masks and surgical masks,” Vermund said. The chart shows that an infected person wearing a surgical mask can infect a person without COVID-19 who is also wearing a surgical mask in just an hour. Nonetheless, Hsu stressed that the idea behind it was correct: if a higher-quality mask was worn, both people would be more protected.

“There are now more N95s or KN95s available for public use, especially during the Omicron surge, and I recommend these as a way to reduce the risk of infection because they are designed to filter out virus particles by reducing air leaks and masks,” Xu said.

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How to improve the effectiveness of masks

There are several steps you can take to improve the fit and filterability of your mask.

Wear a double layer mask

Wearing a disposable mask under a cloth mask with multiple layers of fabric is a great way to add protection.

“If you wear a three-ply surgical mask and stick two or three layers of a cloth mask on top of it, you’ll probably achieve the same effect [protection] Same as KN95,” Vermund said. “Dual shielding adds multiple layers of protection that may help make the mask fit more tightly against the skin. ”

knotted ear straps

Knot and tuck in extra material where the ear straps of the surgical mask meet the mask to increase its effectiveness.

CDC has created the following video guide to demonstrate how to do it properly.

Using the mask assembler

“Make sure your mask is comfortable and creates a tight seal,” Gonsenhauser says. “If not, consider using a mask fitter.”

Using a mask fitter, such as a brace or nylon sock, on a surgical mask can improve its effectiveness by ensuring that it fits perfectly with the contours of the face.

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trim facial hair

Careful fit to the facial skin is important, so those with thick beards should consider trimming their facial hair to improve the fit of the mask, Vermund said.

Beards can make wearing a mask difficult. If you choose not to use a double mask or use a mask fitter, you can trim your facial hair or shave it completely.

Buy masks from reputable sources

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60 percent of KN95 masks in the U.S. are counterfeit or counterfeit. They are not NIOSH compliant, which means they cannot guarantee that the masks will provide the expected level of protection. CDC recommends checking the NIOSH Certified Equipment List to determine if your respirator is NIOSH approved.

“A few months ago retailers had some counterfeit or substandard product slipping through, but now the supply chain has been strengthened, so buying masks from known retail sources will ensure reasonable quality,” Vermund said.

Remember, wearing a well-fitting mask is only part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. You should take other precautions to protect yourself and those around you.

“The most important precaution you can take is getting vaccinated, followed by considering your environment, staying home if you are sick, and wearing an appropriate mask in any setting where there is an increased risk of exposure or transmission,” Gonsenhauser said.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may have updated information as you read this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus news page.