Why you should upgrade your mask as the Omicron variant spreads
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, on CNN Newsroom Tuesday.
“This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact,” Wen added in a separate phone interview.
“We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” she said, which is also known as a disposable mask and can be found at most drugstores and some grocery and retail stores. “You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”
“If we’re going to go as far as to say that masks are required — when we don’t come from a mask-wearing culture and people don’t like wearing masks — at least recommend that they wear the most effective mask,” Wen said.
CNN reached out to the CDC about its recommendations regarding N95s and cloth masks and is still awaiting comment.
Another factor driving change in mask recommendations is a better understanding of Covid-19 and how it spreads, said Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “It’s taken longer for people to appreciate the nature of airborne infection — that this isn’t necessarily a hybrid infection, say with influenza, where it can both be spread by droplets, inhaled a little bit, on surfaces and infect that way,” he said. “It appears … the primary driver of (coronavirus) infection is shared air.”
Why the Omicron variant has been so successful at quickly infecting many people is “unknown at the moment,” but it only underscores the role quality masks can play, Bromage said.
“If it is less virus needed, or if it is a person who’s infected is putting more virus out, then the role of a mask in this is if we can cut down the amount that you’re actually breathing in, you get more time,” he added. “If you needed 1,000 viral particles to infect you and you’re wearing something that cuts 50% of things down, it’s now going to take twice as long to get to that 1,000. If you’re wearing one that is a 90% efficient, it’s going to take at least 10 times as long before you get infected when you’re around somebody (who is infected).”
Swapping out your cloth masks
“If they’re made to the standard and certified by the appropriate boards in their country like NIOSH here, they all do basically the same thing,” Bromage said. “But there is a ton of knockoffs that are not certified in the KN95 side of things, that may meet the standards but they’re not certified to meet it. And there’s others that clearly don’t.”
These experts’ recommendation to wear better masks isn’t a suggestion to trash your cloth masks or go “maskless” when you don’t have a medical-grade mask available.
“If all you have is a cloth mask, it’s still better than nothing,” Wen said. “But you are not well-protected, and you should know that you’re not well-protected. And so if you’re going to a crowded indoor setting and all you have is a cloth mask, don’t go.”
If you’re unable to buy medical-grade masks for whatever reason, go to locations that are requiring masks and providing them for free — such as some train stations, grocery stores or businesses — and ask for a surgical mask, Wen suggested.