Time to upgrade your mask to an N95 for omicron COVID protection? What Seacoast experts say

·3 min read

Health experts say cloth masks are no match for the tiny particles of the omicron variant of COVID-19. The CDC is weighing a change to its recommendations, away from cloth masks and toward a more medical grade mask like surgical masks or the N95.

Dr. Thomas Wold, chief medical officer at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, said the general feeling is that cloth masks are not effective against omicron.

"We are re-upping our general recommendation for masking," he said. "The purpose of masking is to keep everyone safe, the person wearing the mask and the people who are around that person. N95 masks are not for everyone, because they are not always needed, but if they are, they have to fit properly. One size is not for everyone."

Dr. Thomas Wold
Dr. Thomas Wold

"The best mask is the one you are going to wear," said Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, an infectious disease doctor at York Hospital. "For the general population, the best recommendation right now is to use a surgical mask as it offers better protection than you get with cloth masks."

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"It comes down to the easier transmissibility of omicron related to the greater number of viruses that release from an infected person," said Dr. David Itkin, an infectious disease expert at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. "The CDC still lists cloth masks as an option but states they should be multilayered, fit tightly around nose and mouth, be opaque to light (this gives an idea about adequate pore size), and should have a wire to keep it snug over the bridge of nose."

Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, York Hospital
Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, York Hospital

Thibodeau said masks serve two purposes for the pandemic. One, source control protects people from the wearer, and the other purpose, filtration, protects the wearer from others.

"The COVID virus relies on respiratory droplets to hitch a ride on," said Thibodeau. "Omicron is so much more infectious than the previous variants. We don't know why, whether it has a higher viral load, whether it is a sticky virus, so it makes sense to upgrade your mask."

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Wold said there are many variations to cloth masks. Some can be purchased, while many are made by friends and family members. He said a mask that is too thin is probably not sufficient to filter out particles of virus.

One problem with cloth masks is that they get wet easier, making them less effective in blocking anything. Thibodeau said surgical grade masks are waterproof and they are comfortable so people can wear them all day if they need to.

"There are a lot of better options to cloth masks now, readily available to people," said Wold. "A level one medical grade mask is what I would most often recommend for the general population. It should fit well and be comfortable, so you are more likely to keep it on."

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"People talk about respirator masks, like the N95 or the KN95, but I am not convinced they need them for everyday use," said Thibodeau. "They have superior filtration because they are thicker, and because of the material they are made of. But the N95 mask should be fitted to you to assure it offers the best protection."

Some health experts have touted double masking, using a cloth mask over a surgical mask.

"I think there are factors to consider if doing that," said Thibodeau. "First the person needs to be able to breathe freely. And the masks should fit well, without gaps.

"For all masks, proper fit is essential, as is proper care (regarding use, reuse, storage, and using hand hygiene after mask removal)," Itkin said.

The CDC recommends that reusable masks should be washed as soon as they become dirty, or at least once a day. If you have a disposable face mask, throw it away after wearing it once. Always wash your hands after handling or touching a used mask.

This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Omicron variant: Experts say N95 should replace your cloth face mask

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