Jan 07, 2022 1:00 PM

Author: University of Utah Health Communications


Información en español

We now know masks are one of the best ways we can protect ourselves and others against the COVID-19 virus. But with onset of the new Omicron variant, researchers are discovering that not all masks are created equal. Since the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, doctors say you may need to re-think which mask you wear in public. 

Jeremy Biggs, MD, MSPH, is an associate professor of occupational and environmental health at University of Utah Health, and he serves as the organization’s mask expert. He offers the following advice on selecting a mask during the Omicron outbreak.

Is a cloth mask adequate to protect against the Omicron variant?

A cloth mask is better than no mask, but it is not as good as a three-layer surgical mask, KN95, or N95 respirator in protecting against any variants.

If cloth masks are all you have access to, should you double them up?

Not necessarily. If they are already a two-layer or three-layer cloth mask, I would not recommend that. If it is a single-layer cloth mask, then it is reasonable to double up. It’s also advisable to wash them daily. You can wash them in your bathroom sink with hot water and soap and hang to dry. 

Are the paper masks that you can purchase at grocery and retail stores effective? Should they be doubled up?

The three-layer surgical masks do offer protection, but there is no evidence that doubling up will help. 

We’re hearing more and more about N95 and KN95 masks. Do these masks offer better protection against Omicron?

N95 and KN95 masks are better for all variants of COVID-19 if worn and fitted well. They are often a bit more tight-fitting than a surgical mask, and the material also filters out more particles, so the air that goes through the material and not around the mask is filtered better. 

What should you know about purchasing a mask on the internet? How do you know if the N95 or KN95 mask you’re purchasing is certified and not counterfeit?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) does not certify KN95s. They do certify N95s, the negative pressure respirator masks. Quality N95 masks will have a label on the box that states they are FDA and NIOSH approved. According to the CDC, you can check to see if your mask is NIOSH approved by searching the NIOSH Certified Equipment List. As for KN95 masks, check to see if the brand has been tested by the CDC. You can also check the CDC’s list of potential counterfeits

Can you reuse a KN95 mask?

Yes, you can reuse them, but I’d recommend rotating them and allowing the mask to sit for about a day before reusing it. These masks cannot be washed.

Do you need eye protection right now during this surge?

Omicron spreads through the air and can linger, especially in areas with poor ventilation. People who work in health care are required to wear eye protection to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is because they are exposed to patients with the virus and are in areas with higher amounts of the virus in the air. The CDC isn’t currently recommending eye protection for the general public, but it can’t hurt. I also recommend that you not touch your eyes unless you’ve washed or sanitized your hands first.  

Should you assume when you go to public places you will encounter the Omicron variant?

Yes, right now that is a good assumption. The bottom line is that everyone should be wearing a quality mask, washing your hands a lot, and avoiding crowded public places. And of course, get vaccinated, sleep well, eat healthy foods, and exercise. 

The CDC provides advice about masks for people who want to learn more about what type of mask is right for them.

covid-19 coronavirus vaccine omicron face mask

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