With omicron, you need a mask that means business

2 years ago

With another coronavirus variant racing across the U.S., once more health authorities are urging individuals to mask up indoors. Yes, you’ve heard it all before. But given how contagious omicron is, experts say, it’s seriously time to upgrade for an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you’re in public indoor spaces.

“Cloth masks will not work with omicron,” says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses transmit in mid-air.

Omicron is really much more transmissible than coronavirus variants which have come before it. It spreads a minimum of three times faster than delta. One person is infecting at least three others at a time on average, according to data using their company countries.

“It’s very contagious,” says Dr. Robert Wachter, chair from the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “And also the type of encounter you could have had with prior versions of the virus that would have remaining you uninfected, there’s now a high probability you're going to get infected from it.”

True, a cloth mask can be a “marginally OK to perhaps a decent filter,” Marr says. However with something as highly transmissible as omicron, just “OK” isn’t adequate.

Marr notes that preliminary data from scientists in the University of Hong Kong indicates that omicron multiplies 70 times faster inside human respiratory system tissue compared to delta variant does. That study also discovered that omicron reaches higher levels in respiratory system tissue Two days after infection, in contrast to delta.

“That would suggest in my experience that maybe it reaches higher levels therefore we spew out more [virus particles] if we’re infected,” Marr says. Even though it’s too early to inform, she says it’s conceivable that omicron is so proficient at infecting us, we just have to inhale fewer viral particles of omicron to obtain infected.

And virus particles from a contagious person can linger in the air indoors for minutes or perhaps hours after they leave a room in some situations, says Dr. Abraar Karan, a contagious disease physician at Stanford University. “I believe that people have to understand that transmission here can happen even if you’re not near somebody,” he says.

Why high-filtration respirators are better and how to find a legitimate one

Given all of this, you'll need a mask that means business when it comes to blocking viral particles. Unlike cloth masks, N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are made from material with an electrostatic charge, which “actually pulls these particles in as they’re going swimming and prevents you against inhaling those particles,” Karan notes. “And that really is key” – if you don’t inhale virus particles, they can’t multiply in your respiratory tract.

The material in surgical masks also offers an electrostatic charge. But surgical masks tend to fit loosely, along with a snug fit – with no gaps around nose, cheeks or chin – “really makes a big difference,” says Marr, that has studied mask efficacy.

KN95s are usually a bit more comfortable than N95s, but counterfeits continue to be a problem. For safer shopping, search for a site like Project N95, a nonprofit that can help consumers find legitimate personal protective equipment. Or check the CDC’s site for advice on how you can spot a counterfeit and a list of trusted sources for surgical N95s.

For maximum protection, make sure your N95 fits snugly too, developing a seal around the mouth area and nose. The CDC explains why is a good fit and how to test that yours is sealing well.

Still, surgical masks are cheaper than respirators. And when price is a factor for you personally, at a minimum consider topping a surgical mask having a cloth mask to make sure tighter fit, or get a mask fitter – a frame that fits over your surgical mask to really make it more snug. While these options won’t offer just as much protection being an N95, they’re a big improvement over a cloth mask alone, Karan and Marr say.

When to mask up

As to when you should wear a mask, obviously you need to hide when you’re using public transit, including airports and airplanes, so when you’re indoors in supermarkets or any other public places, as with previous surges. Determine whether where you reside provides extensive cases – most places do right now.

Wachter says he’s also covering up indoors with small groups of family and friends unless everyone is vaccinated and boosted. If they’re not boosted, he says, “I consider them to be approximately vaccinated and unvaccinated, and I act appropriately if I’m going to be around them.” That means he either has everyone mask up, or he's everyone take a rapid test to make sure no one is infectious at that moment. “One or the other.” This is especially important if someone attending is high-risk.

Marr states that with omicron surging, she’d have kids wear respirators if at all possible when they’re indoors in public places spaces. Parents trying to find good respirator options for their kids can check out the work of Aaron Collins, aka “Mask Nerd,” a mechanical engineer having a background in aerosol science. He’s been testing the filtration efficiencies of countless masks and respirators on the market. You can find his reviews on his YouTube channel. (This spreadsheet on kids’ masks may also be helpful.)

Combined with getting vaccinated and boosted, upgrading to some high-filtration mask is going to be answer to enjoying a safer holidays without needing to hibernate, experts say.

“I've got a large amount of confidence within the vaccines, if you’re boosted, in avoiding severe outcomes,” Marr says, “and I possess a lot of confidence in an N95 and other alike types of respirators. And i believe that with those two things, you may still go about a lot of your normal activities.”


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