Loosely woven cloth masks provide the least protection, the CDC’s Jan. 14 update says, while layered finely woven products offer more. Well-fitting surgical masks and KN95s (respirators that meets an international standard) are better barriers than cloth masks. For the greatest protection, look for respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They can filter at least 95 percent of particles in the air, as the name, N95, suggests.
Throughout most of the pandemic, however, Americans have been told to reserve N95s and other medical-grade masks for health care workers due to supply shortages. But health officials say these masks are now “widely available,” and in the wake of omicron, which is causing a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, health experts have been encouraging Americans to make the switch. (Specially labeled “surgical” N95 respirators should still be reserved for health care workers.)
More than 1 million new cases of COVID-19 were recorded on Jan. 10. The previous record, in January 2021, clocked in under 300,000.
Finding a good fit is key
The key to enhanced protection for any mask, including respirators, is a proper fit, experts say. What you don’t want are gaps along the edges or around the nose that can let air in and out. (The virus that causes COVID-19 travels in small respiratory droplets in the air.)
“If the mask has a good fit, you will feel warm air come through the front of the mask and may be able to see the mask material move in and out with each breath,” the CDC says.
Respirators should form a seal to the face to work properly, the CDC says. Another factor to consider when choosing a respirator: Look for markings printed on the product to verify its authenticity. The CDC has information on what to look for when purchasing an N95 or KN95 mask.
If you don’t have access to a respirator mask, which can cost upwards of $20 for one or a box of multiple, or choose not to wear one, doubling up — wearing a cloth mask over a surgical one — can improve the fit of your mask. Opting for a mask that attaches behind the neck and head with either elastic bands or ties (instead of ear loops) is another option, the CDC says.
Even with the new guidance, Walensky maintains that the best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long — that you can tolerate in public, indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it.”
President Joe Biden on Jan. 13 said that the government is working to deliver “high-quality masks” to all Americans for free. Details on the plans have yet to be revealed.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.