It may be time to upgrade from cloth masks to hi-tech ones, experts say

·3 min read

Dec. 30—In the early days of the pandemic, many a sweet soul spent socially distanced time churning out cloth masks to help defend family and friends from a deadly new virus that nobody quite understood as it began spreading around the globe.

Though ubiquitous for a time, they are no longer the best available option.

Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during his weekly briefing Wednesday that it "may be time to retire" what he called "the older approach of a cloth-based face covering."

There are better options now that offer both the wearer and others more protection against a disease that has killed 1,510 Mainers since its detection in the state in March 2020.

"I'm increasingly coming around to the view that we need to be upgrading our masks," Shah said.

He suggested that "the bare minimum ought to be a surgical mask," one of those pale blue and white masks that are fairly widespread already.

Shah said he will also be talking with experts on his staff "about upgrading from there" as well to N95 masks that would provide even better defense against the potentially deadly virus that is spreading quickly these days.

It's worth noting that cloth masks, still common, do offer some defense against COVID-19.

Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said Wednesday that if they are 50% effective, that cuts the risk in half for somebody when one is worn.

In a room where everyone is wearing a cloth mask, the efficiency rating of each of the masks would rise to 75% because someone present who has COVID-19 could not pass it on without the virus passing through their mask and another's.At a moment when personal protective measures were in short supply even for hospitals, experts had no trouble urging everybody to wear a mask, sometimes mandating them as well.

But there is a growing chorus of experts who say the nation should be switching to better masks that will do a better job blocking transmission of the virus, especially the tricky omicron variant.

Allen wrote recently that surgical masks have a 70% filtration rate. If two people are each wearing one, he said, their "combined protection is 91% because the virus must pass through masks twice."

That's not bad.

But "much, much better masks exist," expert Aaron Collins wrote in The Guardian this week.

"These are sometimes called high-filtration masks, or by the technical name of a filtering facepiece respirator," he said.

"Such high-performance masks provide significant protection to the wearer at levels that are between five and 10 times that of a cloth mask, while also providing significant protection to others," Collins said.

The California Department of Public Health lists N95, KN95 and KF94 masks as the best options, with the proviso that users should not wear an additional face coverings over or under the respirator since doing so can interfere with the seal to the face.

Allen said that by wearing an N95 mask — and getting vaccinated and boosted — people can "live a low-risk life regardless of what others around them are doing."

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