Story at a glance
- More data and public health experts say the quality of face masks can vary widely.
- That’s being emphasized now as the omicron variant has been found to be significantly more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants.
- N95 and KN95 masks, reserved for health care workers, are considered especially efficient at air filtration when compared to cloth masks made of cotton.
Bejeweled or rainbow colored, made at home or purchased from a retailer — an endless variety of face masks have been used throughout the pandemic. Now, public health experts warn that some masks may not provide enough protection against the highly transmissible omicron variant.
A variety of face masks have come out since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, ranging from cloth masks made of cotton to light blue medical grade masks and N95 masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks that have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that completely cover a person’s nose and mouth. They’ve been found to be one of the most effective ways to reduce transmission and death by COVID-19.
However, data and public health experts say not all face masks are created equal and that’s incredibly important now, thanks to the omicron variant.
Omicron is taking the world by storm, with one study estimating it was about 36 percent more transmissible than the delta variant. That’s become evident with the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases across the country, with John Hopkins University of Medicine revealing more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the U.S. earlier this month.
“Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,” said Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech, to NPR.
Marr described cloth masks as marginally okay, but with omicron just “okay” isn’t good enough. She cited a study conducted by The University of Hong Kong which found that the omicron variant infects and multiplies 70 times faster inside the human respiratory tract tissue than the delta variant. That research is currently under peer review for publication.
As the stakes rise to prevent a COVID-19 infection, one study conducted last year by researchers at Duke University analyzed just how effective different masks were. They found that a fitted N95 mask had a droplet transmission of below 0.1 percent, while a neck gaiter had a 110 percent droplet transmission.
The superiority of N95 masks are well known; as The Cleveland Clinic pointed out, N95 respirators filter out about 95 percent of airborne particles, as they fit close to the face, include an adjustable metal seal on the nose and are especially efficient at air filtration. Cloth masks, often made with materials like cotton, don’t do much to protect people from inhaling particles that carry COVID-19.
Leana Wen, public health professor at George Washington University and an emergency physician, has urged the public to wear high-quality masks and described cloth masks as, “little more than facial decorations.” She said cloth masks should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering and that the U.S. should require and distribute medical-grade surgical masks.
Despite the ongoing research on the various strengths of different face masks, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said this week during a White House COVID-19 response press briefing that the health agency was not going to be changing their mask guidance. She said updated information would be published on the CDC’s website to reflect the different levels of protection different masks provide.
In the same press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, also said that, “we are strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans…this is an area that we’re actively exploring.”
It’s not clear what type of mask the White House is considering making available to Americans, but more and more data indicates that some masks are superior to others.
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