Given the growing impact of the omicron variant, which is more contagious than previous coronavirus variants, including delta, experts recommend wearing face masks that provide greater protection, and avoiding cloth ones.
“Cloth masks are little more than face decorations. There’s no place for them with omicrons, “said Dr. Leana Wen, CNN medical analyst and visiting professor of health policy at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“That is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact,” he added in a statement to CNN.
What mask to use then?
“We need to wear a mask of at least three layers”, which are usually sold in pharmacies and in stores. “You can use a cloth one over that mask, but not only the cloth one”, he pointed.
Trish Greenhalgh, a British professor at the University of Oxford, agreed that most cloth masks are not functional with omicron. Instead, double-layered, or triple-layered, he told Bloomberg, may be more effective.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States notes that N95 masks are designed to trap more than 95% of aerosols, while fabric masks only trap around 50%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that “the effectiveness of filtration in cloth masks is generally less than with medical masks or respirators, but they can provide some protection if they are designed and used correctly.”
In its most recent guidance, the CDC still recommended avoiding N95s and called for masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric. But according to Wen, that is a “big mistake.”
“If we are going to go so far as to say that it is required to wear a mask, when we come from a culture that is not used to and does not like the use of them, at least we must recommend that they use the most effective mask,” he said. .
Even, he stressed, in places with a lot of people “KN95 or N95 face shields should be used.” By better fitting and having materials such as polypropylene fiber, acting as mechanical and electrostatic barriers, these masks prevent small particles from entering the nose or mouth better than others.
Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, explained to CNN that “the main driver of coronavirus infection is shared air.” In that sense, although cloth masks can filter large drops, more effective masks, such as the N95, can filter both large droplets and small aerosols or potentially virus-laden particles if infected people are present.
Why the omicron variant has managed to infect so many people is something that still needs more research, he added, but it does show the role that the quality of the mask can play.
“Whether you need less virus -to be infected-, or an infected person is shedding more virus, the role of the mask is to reduce the amount you are breathing, and give you more time. If you need, say, a thousand viral particles to get infected, and you wear a mask that reduces the virus you breathe by 50%, then it will take twice as long for you to breathe those thousand particles. If you use one that is 90% effective, it will take at least 10 times longer to get infected by being around someone who is infected. “
As of December 29, the Mayo Clinic, a well-known hospital based in Rochester, Minnesota, asks people not to use cloth masks in its facilities, and patients and visitors who do not have one, provide them with surgical masks to enter. “One-layer face masks, or bandanas, which are used frequently, do not provide optimal protection.”
José Molina Mora, from the Faculty of Microbiology of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), also stated that the most effective masks are surgical masks and KN95 respirators. In statements to the newspaper The nation, of Costa Rica, said that “indeed, there are some [mascarillas] that would be more suitable because they have smaller pores, with more capacity to filter [o bloquear el paso de] viral particles. In some countries, the use of KN95 over cloth has been promoted more, in the face of a scenario of more infections because there is a greater possibility that the virus reaches people as exposure increases ”.
And he added: “Let’s think of a strainer: the one with the largest pores will allow the passage of larger molecules. It is the same with cloth masks. The size of its holes, or pores, is greater than that of a specialized mask, such as the KN95, or surgical mask, ”added Molina.
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