Stop Wearing Cloth Masks
The highly contagious variant of Omicron continues to cause a spike in infections across the country. According to the CDC COVID data tracker, the average number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in seven days increased by more than 40% during the week between Christmas and New Years Eve. And in light of this current wave, many medical experts are urging the public to re-evaluate their reliable sheet masks over the past two years of the pandemic.
“I think it’s time to ditch the sheet mask,” said Dr. Amy Edwards, an infectious disease expert at Ohio University Hospitals, Fox 8 in Cleveland. Likewise, Linsey Marr , a Virginia Institute of Technology researcher who studies how viruses are transmitted in the air, told NPR that the sheet masks simply “can’t handle Omicron.” This is why a cloth mask alone is probably not enough to combat the latest COVID variants, and how you should mask yourself instead.
Why Cloth Masks Are Not Enough
Dr. Sachin Nagrani, Medical Director of Heal , told Lifehacker that while cloth masks are still better than no masks, it’s time to switch to medical surgical masks (rectangular, which you might imagine at a surgeon) or respirators (more bulky, tapered such as the N95).
“Earlier during the pandemic, we turned to cloth masks because of the initial supply chain problems,” says Nagrani. “But now surgical masks are readily available and superior in performance.”
Experts say that now that the pandemic has lasted two years, it’s time to replace your fabric masks with surgical masks, N95 or any similar highly filtered respirators.
Why surgical masks are more effective
Surgical masks are 95% effective at filtering viral particles, compared to 37% for cloth masks, according to this study, published in August . As Dr. Abraar Karan , an infectious disease physician at Stanford University explained to NPR , “Medical masks such as the N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are made of electrostatic material,” which is a key factor that “effectively prevents [viral] particles from being inhaled.” …
Cloth masks cannot say the same.
How to find a quality mask
Doctors recommend wearing an isolation mask or hospital-grade respirator that fits snugly and does not leave an air gap around your face. We have previously discussed how to buy high quality medical masks . This is last year’s guide, but it’s still useful for finding real N95s.
Nagrani also reminds us that the effectiveness of a mask depends not only on the material, but also on the correct fit. The N95 and KN95 masks may be the most effective against Omicron, but even they cannot protect against the “user error” of a bare nose.
Likewise, Dr. Leana Ven of George Washington University told People that “a three-layer surgical mask is the bare minimum you should currently wear in the face of such an airborne contagious variant.” However, Wen adds that if you can’t find medical options, you should combine cloth and disposable masks for now . We’ve known for a long time that doubling is better than a single sheet mask; but keep in mind that N95 masks and other high quality masks still provide the best filtration and remain the best choice for getting through this winter.
To stay safe, stay masked (and get vaccinated)
Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared on ABC News last week to continue encouraging us to wear masks and to remind everyone that getting vaccinated is the most important step you can take to stop the spread of the virus and protect yourself and others. At the same time , experts such as Marr report that there is “great confidence in N95 respirators and similar types” and that high quality masks, combined with full vaccinations, mean that “you can still go about your business as usual.” However, Fauci says that “the idea of taking off the masks, in his opinion, is not really something that we should even consider.”
For more information on how to choose the right mask, check out CDC’s complete guide to masking . To consider yourself fully vaccinated, be sure to get a booster shot if you haven’t already . Again, here’s our guide to finding and buying high quality medical masks . You can survive this winter as you did last year, but proper camouflage remains the bare minimum for safety.