Age of Omicron: What You Need to Know About Masks

If you’ve been using a cloth mask or even surgical masks so far, this is the time to upgrade.

Tara Haelle

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Photo by Önder Örtel on Unsplash

Earlier this week, it seemed the CDC might update its mask recommendations to strongly encourage people to wear better quality masks than cloth ones, but CDC director Rochelle Walensky clarified Wednesday that the agency isn’t planning to change its mask recommendations anytime soon. “Any mask is better than no mask,” Walensky said, but in reality, cloth masks offer little protection in the age of Omicron. Although we don’t know yet why it’s so incredibly contagious, Omicron is definitely more contagious than Delta and requires extra protection if you want to avoid infection. Surgical masks are substantially better than cloth masks at protecting you and protecting others from you, but the best masks are N95s or, second-best, N95-like respirator masks, such as KN95s and KF94s.

I suspect the CDC isn’t updating their recommendations because they know not everyone can afford to buy N95s or similar respirators, given that White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients noted earlier in the briefing that the White House is looking at ways to improve accessibility of high quality masks for everyone. The CDC did, at least, update their mask guidance page today with more information about N95s and who might particularly want to consider wearing them if possible.

If you can afford to upgrade what you’re wearing from a cloth mask, or even a surgical mask, to one of the respirator-style masks (but without a valve, since these allow germ spread), now is the time. The higher quality your mask is, the less likely it is that you’ll become infected or infect someone else, as Elizabeth Matsui, MD, an allergist, immunologist and epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, explains well in this 5-minute video.

Here’s a basic overview of why respirator-type masks are better, what that chart you’ve probably seen does and doesn’t mean, how to identify counterfeit N95s, and where to get non-counterfeit respirator masks.

Why Respirator Masks Are Superior

Respirator masks refer to those that are explicitly designed to protect the wearer…

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Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle is a science journalist, public speaker, and author of Vaccination Investigation and The Informed Parent. Follow her at @tarahaelle.