Which face mask is best for protection against omicron?

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 2:56 PM EST
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Many health experts agree that the simple cloth masks many of us have been wearing just won’t cut it when it comes to keeping us safe from the omicron variant.

The new guidance stems from the ability of the latest strain to be much more contagious than the delta variant.

Also, as the pandemic continues, experts have been able to learn more about how COVID-19 transmits in general.

RELATED: Biden administration may take steps to encourage use of N95 masks, reports say

"Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of omicron," said Dr. Leana Wen told CNN recently.

The doctor advised that everyone should be wearing either a three-ply surgical mask or an N95 or KN95 mask.

"You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone," Wen said.

Experts say that N95 and KN95 masks not only allow for a better fit on your face but are made of special materials like polypropylene fibers that prevent tiny particles from getting into your nose or mouth.

A properly fitted N95 mask approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) can filter up to 95% of particles in the air, according to the CDC.

However, you should be aware that the CDC says about 60% of KN95 respirators in the United States are counterfeit (fake) and do not meet NIOSH requirements.

During an appearance on CNN Tuesday, White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said people using cloth masks should consider upgrading to surgical-grade masks as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads.

"I recommend you get the highest quality mask that you can tolerate and that's available to you," Fauci said to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

The CDC has not officially announced a change in their public guidance regarding masks.

However, the Washington Post, citing an unnamed official source, reported Monday that the agency is considering recommending people wear N95 or KN95 masks as opposed to other types.

When the pandemic began in 2020, the CDC simply urged simple cloth face coverings because of a concern that health workers might not be able to access the more protective masks.

But some health experts say a shortage of higher-quality masks like an N95 is no longer an issue and urge for everyone to be wearing more than just a cloth mask.

For a better fit and extra protection, the CDC currently recommends on their website to wear a disposable mask underneath and a cloth mask on top.

Which mask is the best?

A University of Minnesota study looked at how long it takes a person to be infected with COVID-19, according to the type of mask they're wearing around an infected person.

For example, if the infected person is maskless and you have on a cloth mask, the study found that you have 20 minutes before you're infected with COVID-19.

The study said it took about 30 minutes if you're wearing a surgical mask, and two-and-a-half hours if you're wearing a well-fitted N95, KF94 or KN95. Your protection time increases if the infected person is also masked.

The study found that if both people were wearing an N95 mask, it would take 25 hours before the healthy person became infected with the virus.

Dr. Christian Ramers told KGTV in San Diego that the caveat of this study is that it did not account for new variants like omicron.

Do masks protect against new COVID-19 variants like omicron?

"Now that we have omicron, which is two to five times more infectious than delta, we would take those numbers of protection and reduce them even further," Ramers said.

Some cities have started campaigns to distribute higher-quality masks to the public.

This week, the city of Chicago is distributing 1.5 million KN95 face masks across the city as COVID-19 cases continue to rise from the omicron variant, according to a report by WMAQ.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, tweeted that he will be introducing legislation Wednesday for N95 masks to be sent to every household in the country.

Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and frequent contributor to MSNBC, suggested that everyone invest in a supply of N95-like masks.

"We live in a time where new respiratory viruses arise unexpectedly and wildfires devastate for months," Gupta tweeted Tuesday. "Good addition to any emergency kit."

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