Which masks protect against COVID-19 viral spread?


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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM/The Hill) — COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across the Twin Tiers amid the omicron variant, leaving many residents questioning which masks are more effective at preventing viral spread.

Airborne viruses spread via small particles emitted from the mouth or nose when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. A mask will not only protect you from inhaling these harmful particles, but it will also prevent spread to others.

“The purpose of masks, in general, is to reduce the aerosolization of droplets and airborne viruses that you may be carrying asymptomatically or symptomatically,” Dennis Clay RRT, BSRT, EMT, a respiratory expert at Arnot Health, said.

Different masks provide different levels of protection, as seen in this video from UNSW Sydney.

“With COVID-19 being an Airborne pathogen, the particles are very small. They could be in the air after someone coughs or sneezes for up to hours,” Clay added. “It’s [the video] showing how far these particles will disperse depending on how many layers of a mask you’re wearing. Surgical masks are the most layered, so it’s going to provide more protection.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is looking at recommending that Americans wear higher quality masks amid the omicron surge, a CDC official told The Washington Post.

However, as the higher quality masks have been known to be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, the CDC would say in new guidance that if a person can “tolerate wearing a KN95 or N95 mask all day, you should,” according to the Post. Some question if there is a difference between an N95 mask and a regular surgical mask, but Clay says no.

“They both will probably provide just as good of protection when it comes to dispersing those particles,” Clay said.

As far as how often people should replace their masks, Clay suggests using a new, medical grade every day. If you do not have access to a surgical or N95 mask, he recommends using a cloth mask because it is better than not wearing any face covering, as it still limits particle spread.

The agency was wary of recommending that people wear N95 or KN95 masks at the beginning of the pandemic due to concerns that doing so would cause a shortage of those masks for health care workers, per the outlet.

Americans would have to be careful about which higher quality masks they obtain, as the CDC has said 60% of the KN95 masks in the U.S. are fake, the Post noted. 

The updated recommendation comes as the spread of the omicron variant has driven a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases, with early studies showing that the variant is more transmissible and more able to evade immunity gained from vaccines than past strains of the virus.

The U.S. on Tuesday broke its COVID-19 hospitalization record after individual states such as New York and Florida recently broke their daily COVID-19 case records. 

The Hill has reached out to the CDC for comment.

The Nexstar Media Wire contributed to this report.

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