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Helpful guidance and updates on mask-wearing

Last Modified: January 24, 2022

Family Medicine, Community

mask update

Masks are nothing new, but with the omicron variant and cold and flu season in full swing, it’s important to stay informed of the latest recommendations for prevention. Jeffrey Boord, MD, PPG – Endocrinology, Chief Quality and Safety Officer, Parkview Health, shares a few updates and some helpful guidance regarding different types of masks, what to look for when purchasing them and why they are beneficial.

What are the key aspects to keep in mind when purchasing a mask?

There are many different mask options that individuals can choose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance around the different types of masks to help people choose the best one for them. What’s important to understand first and foremost is that any mask is better than no mask at all. Also, the CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently. A mask isn’t helpful if you don’t wear it or wear it incorrectly. So, it’s essential to find the right mask for your personal needs and situation. Fortunately, there’s a range of options available.

What types of masks are available, and which ones do you recommend?

A cloth mask, which many of us have and use, should contain more than one layer of material, and the weave must be dense enough so when held up to bright light, you can’t see through it. This will ensure that your cloth mask will provide a good barrier. You also want to make sure that the mask fits well. Try choosing a cloth mask with a metal nosepiece that can be molded over the nose along with adjustable ear straps to ensure a proper fit that doesn’t allow air to escape around the nose or sides of the face.

The next type of mask that people commonly use is a surgical or procedural mask. This type of mask is made from a more impervious material and has a better level of filtration than a standard cloth mask. Surgical masks often have moldable metal nosepieces to allow for a better fit. Generally, these masks are disposable and only worn for single use. Once finished, you should discard them properly, especially if they become contaminated, soiled, or worn for a significant amount of time.

The third type of facial covering that CDC guidance includes and that you often see people wearing is a KN95 mask. This mask has a metal nosepiece, a tighter fit and a more robust filtration capacity. The “95” listed within the name means it has a 95% filtration. Additionally, the “KN95” label is simply a designation that specifies an international standard regarding its filtration capacity, but these types of masks are widely available to the public.

The last type of mask I want to discuss is the N95 mask. These masks come in different shapes and sizes, but they must be fit-tested before use, meaning you must identify the make and model that best fits your face. Once you find the N95 mask that suits your needs, it should have a good seal and be comfortable to wear. And, when done correctly, it should provide you with a high level of protection.

Are there scenarios in which people should consider upgrading their masks?

That depends on a person’s circumstances. For example, if you have health conditions and you’re going to be in a higher risk situation, like a large public gathering, where you may not be able to socially distance you may want to have a higher level of mask protection. If you’ve been using a cloth mask, you may want to upgrade to a surgical mask, KN95 or N95 mask that provides a greater level of filtration and fit.

On the other hand, if you're in a situation where you can effectively social distance, are fully vaccinated, and don't have any risk factors, then a cloth mask may be sufficient. However, given that we have greater availability of masks for the general public, and we know that omicron is more infectious and easily spread, using the most protective mask that you can comfortably and consistently wear daily is the best advice.

How can people ensure they are purchasing a quality mask?

There are a couple of common-sense measures that people can take to ensure you're purchasing a quality mask. I recommend asking these questions as you shop around:

  • Can you look at the product before you buy it?
  • What is the form, fit and function of the mask?
  • Is the material appropriate and high quality?
  • Is there more than one layer in the cloth mask?
  • Is the weave dense enough to provide a protective barrier?
  • Does the mask have a moldable nosepiece?
  • Are the ear straps adjustable?
  • Will it fit your face correctly?

Also, purchasing masks from reputable vendors and suppliers is another way to make sure you're going to get the quality you expect at a price you are comfortable with.

When should people be wearing their masks?

Given that we're experiencing the highest rates of infection that we've had in Indiana since the start of the pandemic, you should wear a mask everywhere. If you're going out in public or around people outside your home, I recommend putting on a mask. I wear a mask anytime I leave my house, go to work or am out in public. If you see me out and about, there will always be a mask on my face.

Is the omicron variant just as dangerous as the other COVID strains?

While the omicron variant appears to cause less frequent severe illness, we still see many patients who require hospitalization and ICU-level care. There have also been fatalities during the current surge due to severe illness caused by the omicron variant. And while people without other health conditions or risk factors may have a lower risk of severe illness, it's still happening, and the omicron variant can still be deadly, just like the other COVID-19 viral strains.

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