Are N95 Face Masks Needed Against The Omicron Covid-19 Coronavirus Variant? – Forbes

The Covid-19 coronavirus seems to have upped its game with the Omicron variant. Does that mean that you need to up your face mask game as well? Will wearing traditional face masks be enough? Or do you now need to upgrade to N95 ones?

These are some of the questions that you may be “facing” with the spread of the seemingly more transmissible Omicron variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). I covered for Forbes such questions back in January after the Alpha variant had emerged. But that was several Greek letters ago.

The Omicron variant has essentially said “hold me beer” to all other predecessors including the Delta variant when it comes to spreading faster and more readily. It’s not yet clear whether the Omicron variant is equally or less likely to cause severe Covid-19 compared to previous versions of the virus. Nevertheless, anecdotal reports seem to suggest that people are getting infected even when supposedly diligently wearing face masks.

Of course, “wearing face masks” is as broad and vague as “wearing underwear” or maybe even “wearing clothes.” When someone tells you that he or she got frost bite despite “wearing clothes,” it is helpful to clarify whether “wearing clothes” meant wearing more than a thong. Similarly, when someone tells you that he or she caught the SARS-CoV-2 despite wearing a face mask, you want to know what kind of face mask and how it was being worn.

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As you’ve probably noticed, face coverings have been coming in all kinds of sizes, shapes, and types. And not everyone has been wearing such face coverings properly, which in turn can affect their effectiveness. For example, wearing a face covering yet allowing your nose to stick out would be a bit like wearing underwear while allowing your, well, use your imagination. So without more extensive studies, it’s difficult to tell how effective different face masks may be against the Omicron variant.

Moreover, increased transmissibility doesn’t necessarily mean that the Omicron variant can get through face masks more easily. A lot of different things can increase the transmissibility of a respiratory virus. For example, an infected person may on average be shedding more of the virus or shedding for longer periods of time. The virus may survive for greater durations in the air or on surfaces. The virus could more readily get into your cells or get past your body’s defenses and into your cells. Without enough proper studies, it’s still way too early to tell how different the Omicron variant may be from its predecessors.

Nevertheless, an N95 face mask should still give you good protection against the Omicron variant. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) bestows the N95 label on face masks that can filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles, regardless of their size. So, yes, a N95 respirator would provide you much better protection than a face covering that doesn’t meet N95 standards.

Of course, you should verify that a face mask is indeed N95 certified. News flash. People and businesses may do something that’s called “lying,” which in this case doesn’t refer to their positioning on a couch. Therefore, always check the official list of NIOSH-approved N95 face masks to makes sure that a so-called N95 face mask has indeed been tested and certified as such.

N95-certification would be preferable to KN95 certification. The latter is a China standard, which uses testing approaches that may not be as stringent as NIOSH’s procedures. Just because a face mask has KN95 certification doesn’t necessarily mean that it would meet NIOSH N95 requirements. Nevertheless, KN95 certification is still better than no certification. And either a N95-cerified or a KN95-certified face mask would provide you with much better protection than a standard face covering.

Again just because a mask and its packaging says N95 or KN95, doesn’t mean that it has officially earned such certifications as this CBC News segment showed:

This doesn’t mean that standard face coverings would be completely useless against the Omicron variant. While the virus may be small enough to make it though the pores of standard face coverings, such coverings could still at least reduce the amount of virus that may make it through to your nose and mouth. Viruses can be like platypuses in your bathtub. A few may not cause much trouble. However, at some point, the more there are, the more trouble they can cause. Whether you get infected and how severe the resulting infection may be can depend on how much virus gets into your body in the first place.

Moreover, it’s not all about you. Like wearing clothes and not peeing in the swimming pool, wearing face masks is about protecting each other. When you are infected with the virus, nearly any type of face covering can block at least some of the virus coming out of your nose and mouth. Thus, you are doing everyone a public service by wearing a face covering. Naturally, this depends on how much of your nose and mouth are covered, how porous the material may be, and how many layers are involved. Two layers would be better than one layer of the same material. Three layers would be better than two layers. And in theory, 2,523 layers would be better than three layers, although breathing would probably be an issue with the former.

So on the face of it, or the face of you, some type of face covering is better than no face covering. But remember wearing a standard face covering is more about protecting others from you than protecting yourself from others and demonstrating that you actually care about other people. It may offer you some protection but make sure you layer on other types of precautions such as social distancing and being fully vaccinated plus boosted.

If you do have a choice, opt for a N95-certified face mask or the equivalent. Wearing such a mask will be especially important when you cannot combine at least two other Covid-19 precautions at all times. For example, wear a N95 face mask if you can’t maintain social distancing and are not sure whether everyone around you is fully vaccinated and boosted, such as on an airplane. And make sure that your N95 face mask fits against your face snugly, creating an air seal. Otherwise, like wearing underwear that doesn’t fit, an ill-fitting N95 face mask could end up letting in or out things that no one wants to see.

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