Experts agree that it’s past time to reconsider your face mask options - especially if you’re still wearing the cloth variety - as the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread.
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact. We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” she said.
“You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”
Ideally, in crowded places, “you should be wearing a KN95 or N95 mask” which can be as inexpensive as a few dollars each, Dr Wen added.
By having a better fit and certain materials - such as polypropylene fibres - acting as both mechanical and electrostatic barriers, these masks better prevent tiny particles from getting into your nose or mouth and must be fitted to your face to function properly.
Why N95, KN95 and P2 face masks are recommended
Many experts say cloth and surgical masks don’t provide enough protection, and instead encourage N95 or P2 coverings.
The differing terminology for the masks can be confusing, but all the terms refer to the level of filtration offered by the covering - and there’s no doubting that P2, N95 or KN95 models offer better protection than those made from cloth or other fabrics.
Cloth masks - encouraged earlier in the pandemic - can stop large droplets, while more effective masks can also filter smaller aerosols or particles potentially laden with airborne virus.
A cloth face covering also has 75 percent inward and outward leakage, which the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists defines as the “percentage of particles entering the facepiece” and the “percentage of particles exhaled by a source exiting the facepiece,” respectively.
Surgical or disposable masks are around 5 percent to 10 percent less effective than N95 respirators depending on their ASTM International categorisation - with types 1, 2 and 3 ranking just surgical masks from least to most effective.
Unfortunately, across all classes of respirators, there are counterfeit products being detected that don’t meet standards. Here are some tips for consumers and businesses to avoid being caught up in scams and/or purchasing fraudulent and ineffective face masks:
- Seek out suppliers that are known and trusted legitimate businesses that can validate the standard of the PPE you seek to purchase.
- When purchasing from an online store, look for a URL which starts with “https” and a closed padlock symbol to show that information transmitted on that site is secured.
- Avoid up-front payments and payments via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded card or electronic currency like Bitcoin.
- For businesses, carefully check correspondence from regular suppliers, as scammers may pretend to be a business you usually deal with. Verify any requests to change the bank details of your supplier and any changes to payment arrangements by calling them on a known and trusted number.
- If you are unsure what you should be paying for PPE, seek quotes from multiple suppliers to help you determine what a reasonable price is.
- If a deal is too good to be true, it could be a scam. Be particularly cautious when dealing with unsolicited contact. Consider establishing protocols to ensure purchasing decisions are approved by more than one person.
- Keep records of PPE delivery, specifications and user instructions.
Overseas, upgraded masks are already the norm in much of Europe. Germany mandates P2 coverings in stores, on public transport and in other public places. Italy mandated the heavy-duty masks to enter stadiums, museums, cinemas and theaters, and use public transport from December. And in Greece, anyone who has left self-isolation must wear them in any public place for five days.
Can these face masks be reused?
When used by health professionals, these respirators are meant to be discarded after a single use.
However, the man who invented the N95 face mask has previously recommended the general public buy seven respirators, rotate them daily and sterilise them weekly.
Peter Tsai, a Taiwanese American scientist who invented the synthetic fabric used to make N95 respirators, tried a variety of methods. He left the masks out in the sun, put them in the oven, washed them with soap and steamed them, he said.
The best method, he found, was keeping the masks in 70C dry heat for 30 minutes, which can be feasibly done by hanging them in an oven.
Recommendations to wear better masks isn’t a suggestion to trash the cloth masks or go “maskless” when you don’t have a medical-grade mask available.
In studies of various face masks, cloth masks with multiple layers and higher thread counts “have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts,” but are still less effective than medical-grade masks, according to the CDC.
Wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask can better protect you and others by improving fit and therefore filtration capacity. And of course if all you have is a cloth ask, it is better than nothing, bur people should be aware that they will not be well protected.