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With another variant of the coronavirus racing across the United States, once again, health officials are urging people to mask themselves inside. Yes, you’ve heard it all before. But given how contagious omicron is, experts say it is seriously time to switch to an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you’re in public indoor spaces.
“Cloth masks aren’t going to cut it with omicron,” says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses are transmitted through the air.
Omicron is so much more transmissible than the coronavirus variants that came before it. It spreads at least three times faster than the Delta. On average, a person infects at least three other people at a time, according to data from other countries.
“It’s very contagious,” says Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “And the kind of encounter you might have had with earlier versions of the virus that would have left you uninfected, now there’s a good chance you got infected.”
Granted, a cloth mask can be “a little okay for maybe a decent filter,” Marr says. But with something as highly transmissible as omicron, just “OK” isn’t good enough.
Marr notes that preliminary data from scientists at the University of Hong Kong has shown that omicron multiplies 70 times faster inside human airway tissue than the delta variant. This study also found that omicron reached higher levels in respiratory tract tissue 48 hours after infection, compared to delta.
“It would suggest to me that maybe he is reaching higher levels and that we are throwing up more [virus particles] if we are infected, ”says Marr. And even though it’s too early to tell, she says it’s conceivable that omicron would be so good at infecting us, that you only need to breathe less omicron virus particles to get infected.
And viral particles from an infectious person can linger in the air indoors for minutes or even hours after leaving a room, in some situations, says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at the Stanford University. “I think people need to realize that transmission here can happen even when you’re not around someone,” he says.
Why high filtration respirators are better and how to find a legitimate one
Given all of this, you want a mask that is effective when it comes to blocking viral particles. Unlike cloth masks, the N95, KN95, and KF94 respirators are all made of a material with an electrostatic charge, which “actually attracts these particles as they float and prevents you from inhaling those particles,” Karan notes. “And that’s really the key” – because if you don’t inhale virus particles, they can’t multiply in your airways.
The material of surgical masks also has an electrostatic charge. But surgical masks tend to fit loosely, and a tight fit – with no space around the nose, cheeks, or chin – “really makes a big difference,” says Marr, who has studied the effectiveness of masks. .
KN95s tend to be a bit more comfortable than N95s, but fakes are still a problem. For safer shopping, check out a site like Project N95, a nonprofit that helps consumers find legitimate personal protective equipment. Or visit the CDC’s site for tips on how to spot a counterfeit and a list of trusted sources for surgical N95s.
For maximum protection, make sure your N95 is also snug, creating a seal around your mouth and nose. The CDC explains what makes a good fit and how to test that yours seals well.
Still, surgical masks are cheaper than respirators. And if cost is a factor for you, consider covering a surgical mask with a fabric mask to ensure a tighter fit, or get a mask adjuster – a frame that fits over your surgical mask to make it more snug. comfortable. While these options don’t offer as much protection as an N95, they are a big improvement over a cloth-only mask, Karan and Marr say.
When to hide
As for when to hide, you obviously want to cover yourself up when using public transportation, including airports and airplanes, and when you’re indoors in grocery stores or other public places, like in previous flare-ups. . Check if where you live has a lot of cases – most places do right now.
Wachter says he also covers himself indoors with small groups of friends and family unless everyone is vaccinated and boosted. If they’re not boosted, he says, “I consider them somewhere between vaccinated and unvaccinated, and I act appropriately if I want to be with them.” This means that he either makes everyone mask themselves or he gives everyone a quick test to make sure no one is contagious at the time. “Either.” This is especially important if a person is at high risk.
And, says Marr, with the omicron push, she’s also making her kids wear respirators these days when they’re indoors in public spaces. Parents looking for good respirator options for their children can check out the work of Aaron collins, aka “Mask Nerd”, a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. He has tested the filtration efficiency of hundreds of masks and respirators on the market. You can find his opinions on his YouTube channel. (This worksheet on children’s masks may also be helpful.)
Combined with the vaccination and booster, switching to a high-filtration mask will be key to enjoying a safer holiday season without having to hibernate, experts say.
“I have a lot of confidence in the vaccines, if you are beefed up, to protect you from serious consequences,” says Marr, “and I have a lot of confidence in an N95 and similar types of respirators. And I think with those two things, you can still go about a lot of your normal activities. “