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It’s Time to Upgrade Your COVID-19 Masks

The highly contagious Omicron variant means that a better-fitting, higher-rated mask may keep you and loved ones safer

The CDC is considering an update to their mask guidelines in 2022, in light of Omicron’s increased contagiousness. By wearing higher-rated, better-fitted masks, you can reduce the chance of getting sick. And if you have or think you have COVID, a better mask may reduce the chances of you spreading it to loved ones in your home.

Like previous variants, the highly contagious Omicron is spread through respiratory droplets that enter the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. This is why protecting yourself with a well-fitted, non-porous mask—one that prevents these droplets from reaching your nose or mouth—is so important.

Masks to avoid

  • Bandana/gaiter masks
    • Unlike multi-layered cloth masks, the material in bandanas and gaiter masks is typically thin, stretchy, and porous, making it a poor choice for COVID protection
  • Masks with valves
    • These masks allow respiratory droplets both in and out through the valve, including COVID-19 particles
  • Face shields
    • These are mainly used for eye protection, but do not protect your nose or mouth from respiratory droplets
  • Improperly worn
    • Even highly rated masks won’t be effective unless they completely cover your nose and mouth and are a snug fit against your cheeks; a nose wire can also help limit leaks

Upgrade your masks

While the CDC still lists multi-layered cloth masks as adequate protection against COVID-19, consider exchanging your cloth options with highly rated alternatives that may offer more protection.

  • N95s
    • These masks are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and can offer the best protection against COVID-19; they filter up to 95% of air particles and seal tightly to the face when fitted properly
  • KN95s
    • While these masks are not approved for American healthcare workers by NIOSH, they meet certain international standards and may offer better protection than cloth masks
  • Surgical masks
    • These masks do not feature a tight fit like N95s and often do not include a nose wire to prevent leaks, but their material is better suited for filtering airborne particles than cloth masks

The increased production of N95 masks mean that non-healthcare workers can consider upgrading to this option when it’s available. The CDC still recommends that specially labeled “surgical” N95s be prioritized for healthcare workers.

But be aware of counterfeit KN95s and N95s that do not meet international or NIOSH standards, especially when purchasing online.

N95s, KN95s, and surgical masks are disposable, which means they should be thrown away once they become dirty, damaged, or difficult to breathe through. N95s may feel slightly more uncomfortable to breathe in than cloth masks, due to their tight seal. But they offer the best protection against COVID-19 when you’re in public or near a loved one who has or may have COVID-19.

Remember vaccines + social distancing

Upgrading your mask to help combat the spread of COVID-19 is just one way of keeping yourself and your community safe. Vaccinations remain the most important element to avoiding severe illness, hospitalization, or death from COVID-19. The CDC also recommends everyone 12 years and older who is vaccinated to get their booster.

When possible, it’s best to avoid crowded, indoor public places. And if you’re in public, maintain at least six feet of distance from those around you. These preventive measures, when combined, offer the best chance of avoiding the highly contagious Omicron variant and accidentally spreading it to loved ones.