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To your Health! It’s time to level up our mask game

Folks, we’re nearly two years into this pandemic. We’re neck-deep in a surge of the omicron variant, which is ridiculously easy to catch. It’s time to step up our anti-COVID-19 game. And there’s one really easy way to do that: Wear a better mask.

Let the cloth masks go

But we love our cloth masks! We can buy them in cute patterns or with sports logos or memes printed across the front. We can match them to our outfits. We can buy them anywhere.

But here’s the thing: They don’t work that well. Cloth masks, even those with multiple layers, tend to be up to about 30% effective at filtering out virus particles. While that’s a whole lot better than nothing—and nothing was the only other option back when better masks were in extremely short supply—it’s not great. Given that omicron is two to three times more transmissible than the delta variant, which was itself at least twice as transmissible as the original virus, it’s time to kiss the cute cloth masks goodbye.

COVID-19 is airborne

A lot has changed since the start of the pandemic. For one thing, we now know that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is transmitted primarily by aerosols: microscopic droplets that can travel a heck of a lot farther than 6 feet and can hang out in the air for long periods of time in places that don’t have good ventilation (think bars; cramped city grocery stores; offices and classrooms with outdated HVAC systems and/or windows that don’t open). The better your mask, the more able it is to protect you—and not just from the big droplets that the guy over there spewed when he sneezed but from the invisible ones that everybody in the room exhales each time they breathe, talk, or laugh.

Good masks aren’t hard to find

Another thing that’s changed since early 2020: High-quality masks are now easily available for everyone, not just health care workers. What counts as “high quality”?

There are three options:

  • N95: This is the most protective mask; it’s what health care workers should be wearing. Technically it needs to be specially fitted, and for lots of people they’re uncomfortably tight. It blocks 95% of virus particles.
  • KN95: This is the everyperson’s version of the N95. Not quite as protective, but still, at roughly 85% effective, a huge improvement over cloth masks. KF94s are similar.
  • Level 3 surgical: This is the most effective version of the little blue disposable mask we’re all now familiar with. Kid-sized versions of these can be a good choice for little ones whose faces are too small for even the smallest KN95s. These masks can be 70% effective if you use the knot-and-tuck technique. (See “How to ‘knot and tuck’ a surgical mask” below.)

The internet is awash in sites that can sell us any of the above mask types, but be careful—a lot of places don’t check the quality of the items they’re selling. Your best bet is to go to a site like Project N95, a nonprofit that vets all the PPE it sells and keeps prices low so that places like schools and day care centers can afford their products. Otherwise you might be stuck with a box of counterfeit KN95s and not realize it.

Fit matters

There is no point in wearing a well-made KN95 mask that has big gaps around the nose and cheeks. Your mask should fit snugly on your face. N95 and KN95 masks come in different sizes, and—just like shoes and jeans—some brands tend to run large, while others run small. I had to try a couple of different versions of KN95s before I found one that worked on my narrow face; I gave the masks that were too big to a friend of mine whose aristocratic nose required something a little more roomy. If you prefer to wear a surgical mask, there’s an easy trick to get rid of the gaps that often pooch out at the sides.

So remember— we’re not powerless in the face of these variants. We’ve got amazing vaccines. We know that improved ventilation helps decrease the likelihood of disease transmission. And we have access to seriously effective masks. All we have to do is wear them.

For more information

Liz Ruark is co-editor of the COVID Weekly Testing Newsletter, published by COVID-19 Response Advisors and Health Catalysts Group. She holds a DVM degree from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. 

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