CDC: Ditch your cloth mask and get a NIOSH-approved N95 for the best protection against Omicron

·4-min read
A medical worker fit tests an N95 mask to a hospital worker at the US Department of Veterans Affairs Boston in West Roxbury, Massachusetts on January 11, 2022.
Respirators, when "worn properly" protect better than cloth or surgical masks, the CDC said.Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
  • The CDC is urging Americans to up their mask game in the face of the Omicron variant.

  • The agency says the best mask for you is the one that fits you well (covering both nose and mouth) and that you will wear consistently.

  • This is the first time the CDC's said it may be best for everyone — even non-medical workers — to use NIOSH-approved N95s.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to up their mask game, in the face of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

The public health agency still asserts that "any mask is better than no mask," and the best mask is one that fits you well, and you'll wear consistently.

But, in the face of a more infectious coronavirus variant, the CDC released new mask guidance on Friday evening stressing it's perfectly OK, and in fact preferable now, to use National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved, N95 respirators to protect yourself from the virus, even if you're not a healthcare worker.

"While all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection," the new guidance, issued Friday night, read.

High-quality, well-fitted, medical masks stop the spread of the virus near-perfectly, making them an important tool in preventing infections, deaths, and also the rise of new variants. N95s, when manufactured and worn correctly, filter at least 95% of particles in the air. The Environmental Protection Agency rates their fitted filtration efficiency at 98.4%.

Loose cloth masks offer the worst protection, while well-fitting N95s are best

surgical mask dangling from rearview mirror
"N95s offer the highest level of protection" against the coronavirus, the CDC said on Friday.Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The new guidance marks a major shift in mask advice for the general public. Since the early days of the pandemic, the CDC had encouraged laypeople who were not on the frontlines of the pandemic response to abstain from using N95 respirators, asking that those highly effective masks be saved for medical personnel.

But now that many high-quality face coverings made from medical-grade materials are widely available to consumers, there's no reason for people to feel bad about using them to protect themselves and their families from getting sick.

"Respirators are made to protect you by filtering the air and fitting closely on the face to filter out particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19," the CDC's new guidance explains, providing a hierarchical framework for thinking about how much protection your mask provides.

Here is the 4-tiered system the agency uses to explain how to think about how good your mask is:

  • Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection

  • Layered finely woven products offer more protection,

  • Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection,

  • Well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.

  • The CDC still says that specially labeled surgical N95 respirators — a special subtype of N95 that provides additional protection against biohazards like blood "should be reserved for use by healthcare personnel."

"Whatever product you choose, it should provide a good fit (i.e., fitting closely on the face without any gaps along the edges or around the nose) and be comfortable enough when worn properly (covering your nose and mouth) so that you can keep it on when you need to," the CDC also said in the new guidance.

Beware of counterfeit products

The agency warned against respirators proclaiming to be NIOSH-approved, when they are not. The CDC maintains a list of NIOSH-approved respirators that is updated weekly.

"CDC still continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Wednesday, when asked during a briefing about updating mask guidance. "We do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that recommendation is not going to change."

When an N95 is essential

The new guidance stresses that certain situations merit a high level of protection against the virus. N95s are an especially smart idea if you're:

  • Caring for someone who has COVID-19

  • At increased risk for severe illness (like immunocompromised people, or older adults)

  • Working at a job where you interact the public, "especially when not everyone is consistently wearing a mask," the CDC said. "For example, bus drivers and grocery store workers."

  • Riding public transportation

  • In a crowded indoor or outdoor public setting, where social distancing is limited

  • Not up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations

For kids, this isn't so simple

The CDC maintains that everyone 2 years or older should mask up when indoors, in areas of high transmission, but finding good masks that fit tiny faces can be a challenge, since there are no industrial respirator standards for kids.

Mechanical engineer Aaron Collins, aka the "Mask Nerd" has created a spreadsheet to help parents choose the best available well-fitting masks for their children.

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