COVID: ‘We need to stop wearing cloth masks and go to N95s for all,’ expert says

Jose Luis Jimenez, University of Colorado at Boulder professor of chemistry and CIRES fellow, joins Yahoo Finance Live to give his expert opinion on where investments in masks and ventilation could aid in lowering COVID transmission rates.

Video transcript


- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. We're continuing to track the outbreak of the omicron variant when it comes to what it means for not just things here at home in the US, but also around the globe. The World Health Organization confirming that 38 countries now have confirmed cases, that's up from just a little over 20 just two days ago.

And of course, President Biden has been quick to try and adjust some travel policies around testing requirements, they're shifting that up to within 24 hours of international travel. And for more on what more can be done around this, want to bring our next guest here, Jose Luis Jimenez. A University of Colorado Boulder professor of chemistry and CIRES fellow as well, alongside Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani here with us.

And Professor, I mean, when we look at this, there are a lot of questions around what omicron could mean in terms of increased transmissibility in cases but when it comes to best practices, it's interesting given the fact that we've seen a lot of college students out there reporting that mask mandates are gone, seemingly at a time when we would expect quite the opposite. So what are you seeing around the data coming in and maybe what more should be done here?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Well, unfortunately, we are not quite doing the right things that we should do and I would say especially in the US because it has become a political issue than in other countries. I'm originally from Spain and their vaccines and masks are not a political issue like they have become in the US, and that is very unfortunate.

So we need to keep the mask mandates in locations in times when cases are high but actually we need to improve the mask mandate, we need to stop wearing cloth masks and go to N95 for all. We know now that this is an airborne virus that we Inhale it and we need to protect people from inhalation. And this message is not being communicated clearly by either the CDC or the WHO, unfortunately.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Jose, I want to dig into that because I know that they did take quite some time to get into acknowledging the airborne transmission of the disease or the virus rather. I remember very early on we had Department of Health and as well as Homeland Security looking at it more as droplets or being able to transfer by touch but it's since changed.

And we've seen some changes, such as a focus on HEPA filters but it seems like largely we're relying on mask. What can you tell us about buildings and sort of what maybe companies need to be considering for return to office?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Yes. Unfortunately, yeah, they told us at the beginning loud and clear, this is droplets that fall to the ground or we get infected through surfaces, and some of the mitigations are still stuck there. We're still being told hand-washing is very important, surface disinfection is very important, that is not true.

We need to focus on the air, we're breathing this virus in. And masks, good masks are very important, where we need to clean the air and filtration or ventilation, ventilation means bringing air from outside, filtration means to remove the virus from the air, these are things that are not very expensive and certainly not very expensive compared to the destruction that the pandemic is causing.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And I want to talk about the mask mandates because I know Zach talked about that. We know that within several states, we've even seen a recent report out of I believe it's Missouri where a study was conducted but then held back on account of the state wanting to continue banning those mask mandates. Do you think that we're in for a hard winter as a result of these and should states be looking at reinstating those?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Yes, I mean, yes. And there is data already, locations that don't have mask mandates or schools that don't have mask mandates have a lot more transmission. So, we know that masks mandates work but they don't, I mean, people are very tired of the pandemic and partially it's like the pandemic continues because we don't manage to stop transmission.

And we don't stop transmission because we are not doing the right things, we are not giving people the best masks that fit well to your face and have really good filters. Giving masks for all of the US population would cost billions of dollars, maybe but that's nothing compared to the trillions that are constantly being given by Congress in all these packages or something like that. So, and we wrote a letter to the Biden administration with a lot of top experts, Mike Osterholm, David Michaels and others, in February and they haven't even replied.

- I'm sorry, wait, wait, say that one more time. I mean, we're talking about a lot of these issues so you're right to raise the fact that masking it seems to be one of the most protective measures you can have here.

And, you know, we've had a lot of politicization around vaccines but masks are something that I suppose-- there's also now politics being played in there too. But, I mean, we've had a lot of time to address maybe some of the supply issues around N95 specifically. So, I mean, I guess maybe just make the one more time there.

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Yeah. We should give N95 for everybody or equivalent mask like elastomers masks, and we should require that. There is no longer a supply shortage, there is many US manufacturers that have an excess supply of N95. And is not expensive to give them to everybody and to teach people how to fit themselves to the face.

The important thing is not to have gaps. When we were cloth masks or surgical masks, we have gaps and the air goes in and out without being filtered, and then transmission continues and we all get even more and more tired.

So there is a fear from some politicians to, oh, we don't want to have measures that may look too stringent but those stringent measures at the end will give us freedom because they will suppress transmission and then when there is less virus around, that's when we can do more things.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. And Jose on that point, I know that we've talked about not just the mask mandates but the vaccine mandates. We know now the Biden administration has really invested a lot of money in testing in order to be able to catch any positive cases. So it seems like they are not focusing on maybe the one thing or one of the other things.

And it seems like they've talked about a broad range, right? Vaccines plus testing plus mask plus distancing plus washing hands, that seems to be the constant and consistent message. Where would you rank the masking in terms of importance in that breath?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: I mean, I would say vaccines are the first thing then I will put masks, high quality masks are extremely effective. Then I will put testing, especially antigen testing is very effective. And then I would put ventilation and filtration. And hand-washing is nice and we should all do more than we were doing before the pandemic but is not stopping COVID transmission.

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