The new Omicron variant is now circulating in Washington State. Although we do not yet have an official report of the variant here in Skagit County, now is the time to be taking precautions. There is still much that experts don’t know about this new variant. What we do know, though, is that we already have the tools we need to fight the spread of omicron.
The CDC has listed vaccination, boosters, testing, and masking as the best ways to keep omicron under control. We know that COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death, and the CDC recommends that those 16 years and older who are eligible for a booster go and get theirs now.
As for masking—we know that face masks offer protection against all variants, including omicron. The CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status. Here in Washington, the statewide mask mandate requires that all people five years of age and older must wear a mask in public indoor settings and at large, outdoor events with 500 or more attendees, including sporting events, fairs, parades, and concerts, regardless of vaccination status.
We’ve been masking up for 21 months at this point, and some of us have amassed quite the collection! Some of those masks may be getting a bit worn, or maybe they’re not fitting as snugly as you’d like. If you’re wondering if those cloth face masks from 2020 are still offering the right amount of protection, please read on.
NOTE: No child under the age of two should wear a face mask for safety reasons.
It comes down to fit and quality.
When choosing a face mask, it comes down to fit and quality. So, let’s discuss fit first.
Masks that are loose, with gaps around your face or nose, are not as helpful in protecting you or others. A mask should completely cover your nose and mouth and should fit snugly against the sides of your face without any gaps.
To ensure a proper fit, you can choose masks with a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask. You can also use a mask fitter to help ensure a snug fit with a cloth mask. For visuals of these tips, visit the guidance for improved mask use from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Knotting and tucking is also a good way to improve the fit of a medical procedure mask. Knot the ear loops of the mask where they join the edge of the mask, then fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges. (For instructions, see the following https://youtu.be/GzTAZDsNBe0)
Wearing a mask with at least two layers is also important. Some people even opt to wear a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask. (Note: N95/KN95 masks should not be layered with other masks.)
And for quality…
The highest quality masks are designed and tested to ensure they meet a standard. That means they perform at a consistent level to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The level of quality you need will be dependent on the situation. Sometimes a cloth mask will work just fine, and at other times, a higher quality mask may be called for.
The highest quality, in order, are:
- N95 and KN95 (as well as KF94) are the most effective, provided they are genuine and have been tested to meet a standard. These are disposable, so you will need to replace them (depending on how much you wear it). These are not available in children’s sizes and are more expensive.
- Surgical masks that have been tested to meet a national standard (ASTM 2/3). These are also disposable.
- Cloth masks that have a double layer. These can be washed and re-used.
When to consider wearing a N95 or KN95 mask.
For the best protection against COVID-19 variants such as omicron, there are times when folks may want to consider a higher quality mask. However, it is important to note that if you do not have this type of mask available, a high-quality, well-fitting surgical or cloth mask will do just fine.
The following scenarios may warrant the need for better protection against COVID-19:
- Being in close or prolonged contact with people whose vaccination status is unknown
- Being in crowded indoor settings or settings with poor ventilation
- Riding on planes, buses, trains, or other forms of public transportation, especially when you can’t keep at least 6 feet away from people who don’t live with you
- Taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19
- Working at a job where you interact with large numbers of the public
- If you are at increased risk for severe illness, for example, older adults or people with certain underlying medical conditions
Should you use N95 and KN95 masks for everyday use?
The supply of high-quality N95 and KN95 masks have definitely improved since the early days of the pandemic. These are better at filtering the virus and now are more widely available for the public. Even still, the CDC does not recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 in non-healthcare settings, stating that these masks should be prioritized for healthcare personnel and for other workers who are required to wear them for protection against other hazards. An exception to this would be for scenarios such as the ones listed above.
These types of masks are highly effective when used properly. They are tight-fitting respirators that—when fit properly—filter out at least 95% of particles in the air, including large and small particles. These masks meet a standard of quality, meaning that they are designed and tested to ensure they perform at a consistent level to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As stated above, N95 and KN95 masks are not available in children’s sizes and can be more expensive. If folks decide to go this route for everyday use, that is perfectly fine. But remember: a high-quality, well-fitting surgical or cloth mask are great everyday options for the whole family (minus those itty bitty kiddos and babies).
For N95 and KN95 masks, fit and quality are key.
Most people outside of health care settings don’t have access to fit testing to ensure proper use with minimal air leakage. If an N95 does not fit tightly, you won’t get the full benefit. Aside from fit testing, some people might find that N95s are less comfortable for everyday use. For these reasons, you should use your best judgement on how much value these types of masks add in a particular scenario.
Counterfeits are a challenge, so find a reputable dealer and make sure the product is legitimate. KN95 masks are commonly made and used in China. Some KN95 masks sold in the United States meet requirements similar to those set by NIOSH, while other KN95 masks do not. It is also important to know that about 60% KN95 masks in the United States are counterfeit (fake) and DO NOT meet NIOSH requirements. Some N95 masks also are counterfeits, described in this article from the CDC.
Need a good resource to ensure the quality and legitimacy of your mask? Project N95 aims to help people find a credible source for buying N95 and KN95.
As we learn more about omicron, please use everything in your toolkit to keep yourself and your family safe. Mask up, get tested and stay home when sick or exposed, and—most importantly—get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. To find your vaccine, go to Vaccine Locator today or give the COVID-19 Info Hotline a call at 1-800-525-0127, then press #.