The US CDC is telling people to ditch cloth masks and use N95 ones for Omicron protection

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Respirators, when "worn properly" protect better than cloth or surgical masks, the CDC said.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
  • The US 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.
  • But these new guidelines mark the first time the CDC has acknowledged it may be wise for everyone — even non-medical workers — to use NIOSH-approved N95s, the gold standard in virus protection.
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America's 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 face 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 masks 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 coronavirus 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 

"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 masks made from medical-grade materials are 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) sothat you can keep it on when you need to," the CDC also said in the new guidance. 

But beware of counterfeit products, proclaiming to be NIOSH-approved, when they are not.

"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."

South African rules require only a mask that covers nose and mouth, though cloth masks of at least two layers are recommended.

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