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Omicron Means Cloth Face Masks Are RIP: What Experts Say Works Best

President Joe Biden listens as Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Should You Consider Upgrading Face Mask Amid Omicron Spread?: What the Omicron coronavirus variant is proving is that the nearly two-year-long pandemic is far from over.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already has confirmed that the Omicron variant—first detected in South Africa only about a month ago—now accounts for 90 percent of all coronavirus cases in some parts of the United States. Overall, it represents well over 70 percent of all cases in the country.

According to data compiled by the New York Times, daily new coronavirus cases in the United States surged past five hundred forty thousand on Monday, lifting the rolling seven-day average to more than two hundred forty-three thousand. That figure is the highest seen since mid-January and is more than double the average witnessed just two weeks ago, all or in large part thanks to Omicron.

Against this highly concerning backdrop, do Americans need to take any action to better protect themselves from this rapidly spreading Omicron variant? According to some experts, perhaps it’s the right time to consider upgrading one’s face mask—especially if one has been relying on the traditional cloth variety.

“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron. This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN last week.

“We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask. You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone,” she continued, adding that especially in crowded areas, individuals should look to wearing a KN95 or N95 mask.

Electrostatic Charge Key

Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, noted that people need to be aware that virus particles from an infectious individual can potentially linger in the air indoors for hours even if he or she leaves the room.

Given this, he suggested on National Public Radio that people should strongly consider wearing N95, KN95, or KF94 masks. Unlike cloth masks, these types of respirators are made from material with an electrostatic charge, which “actually pulls these particles in as they’re floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles,” he said.

Supported By Data

Offering even more evidence is a Korean study that showed that both the KF94 and N95 masks perform at a similar level or better when compared to surgical masks. That could help protect against Omicron.

For the study, seven patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were instructed to cough five times, separated by twenty-second intervals, into each type of mask. After analyzing the data, what the researchers found was that “SARS-CoV-2 was detected on the petri dishes after coughing in three out of seven cases with the surgical mask or no mask,” the study’s authors wrote.

However, “viral particles were not found in the petri dishes after coughing while wearing the N95 mask or the KF94 mask. While viral particles were detected in both the inner and outer surfaces of the surgical masks, those were detected only in the inner surfaces of the N95 and KF94 masks,” they concluded.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

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