The highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to drive a surge of infections across the country. According to the CDC’s COVID data tracker, the seven-day average for COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by more than 40% during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And in light of this current wave, many medical experts are urging the public to reassess their trusty cloth masks from the past two years of the pandemic.
“I think the time is really here to retire the cloth mask,” Dr. Amy Edwards, an infectious disease expert with University Hospitals in Ohio, told Fox 8 in Cleveland. Similarly, Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech researcher who studies how viruses transmit in the air, told NPR that cloth masks simply “are not going to cut it with Omicron.” Here’s why your cloth mask alone probably isn’t enough to fight against the latest COVID variants, and how you should mask up instead.
Why cloth masks aren’t enough
Dr. Sachin Nagrani, medical director for Heal, told Lifehacker that while cloth masks are still better than no masks at all, the time has come to switch to medical-grade surgical masks (the rectangular kind that you might picture on a surgeon) or respirators (the bulkier, cone-shaped ones like N95s).
“Earlier in the pandemic, we turned to cloth masks because of initial supply chain issues,” Nagrani says. “But now, surgical masks are readily available and superior in performance.”
Now that we’re two years into the pandemic, experts say it’s time to upgrade your cloth masks to surgical ones, N95s, or any similar high-filtration respirator.
Why surgical masks are more effective
Surgical masks are 95% effective at filtering out virus particles, compared to just 37% for cloth masks, according to this study published in August. As Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, explained to NPR: “Medical-grade masks like N95, KN95, and KF94 respirators are all made out of material with an electrostatic charge,” which is the key factor that “actually prevents you from inhaling [virus] particles.”
Cloth masks can’t say the same.
How to find a high-quality mask
Doctors suggest wearing a hospital-grade isolation mask or respirator that fits snugly and does not allow air gaps around your face. We’ve previously covered how to buy high-quality, medical-grade masks. That guide is from last year, but it’s still useful in terms of finding authentic N95s.
Nagrani also reminds us that mask effectiveness is not just about the material, but about obtaining a proper seal. N95 and KN95 masks may be the most efficient in the fight against Omicron, but even they can’t protect against the “user error” of an exposed nose.
Likewise, Dr. Leana Wen of George Washington University told People that “a three-ply surgical mask is the minimum of what you should be wearing at this time, in the face of such a contagious variant that is airborne.” However, Wen adds that if you can’t find medical-grade options, you should combine cloth and disposable masks in the meantime. We’ve known for a while that doubling up is better than a solo cloth mask; but keep in mind that N95s and other high quality masks still provide the best filtration, and they remain your best bet for getting through this winter.
To stay safe, stay masked (and get vaccinated)
Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared on ABC news last week to continue to urge us to wear our masks, but also to remind everyone that getting vaccinated is the most important step you can take to stop the spread of the virus and to protect yourself and others. At the same time, experts like Marr report having “a lot of confidence in an N95 and similar types of respirators,” and that high-quality masks combined with full vaccination means “you can still go about a lot of your normal activities.” Nevertheless, Fauci says that “the idea of taking masks off, in [his] mind, is really not something we should even be considering.”
For more information about selecting the right mask for you, here’s the CDC’s full guide to masking up. In order to consider yourself fully vaccinated, make sure you get your booster if you haven’t already. And again, here’s our guide to finding and buying high-quality medical-grade masks. You can get through this winter, just like you did last year, but proper masking remains a bare minimum to staying safe.