The Margin: Ring in the New Year wearing N95 masks: ‘A simple one-layer cloth mask does not provide nearly enough protection’

United States

Picking out your New Year’s Eve outfit? Consider upgrading your face mask while you’re at it. 

Public health experts are warning that the single-layer cloth masks that have become popular during the pandemic actually do not provide enough protection against COVID-19, especially in the face of the omicron variant — although it should be noted that any face covering is still better than wearing nothing at all.

“Because we know that COVID is airborne, the quality of the mask really matters,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told MarketWatch. And a single-layer cloth mask “provides very little protection against the delta variant, and certainly against the very contagious omicron variant,” she added. “This is why it’s so critical to upgrade our masks.” 

“A simple one-layer cloth mask does not provide nearly enough protection.” 

It’s not surprising then that searches for “mask,” “N95” and “particulate respirator type” were trending on Google GOOGL on Monday morning. Indeed, “where to buy N95 face masks” was one of the top 10 most Googled “where to buy” searches of the past year. 

A box of 20 N95s is running about $ 40-$ 45 on Project 95’s site. Similarly, a 10-pack goes for just under $ 20 at Home Depot and elsewhere.

Wen suggested wearing KN95 or KF94 masks anytime that you’re in enclosed spaces with many other people — a common experience on mass transit or on board airplanes, for example, or during indoor festivities like upcoming New Year’s Eve parties. “These masks are the highest quality for filtration, and it’s what we need in the middle of this pandemic of an extremely contagious variant,” she said. 

“We need to be promoting better high-quality masks everywhere, because right now a single-layer cloth mask just isn’t cutting it against omicron,” agreed former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on CNN’s AC360 last Thursday. “We need more testing. We need better masking. That’s how we get through this.”

Related: We asked 6 doctors which face masks they wore each day to protect themselves from COVID-19. Here’s what they shared.

And: Doctors reveal exactly what kind of face mask travelers should wear on an airplane to protect against COVID-19

Indeed, beginning Monday, the judge in Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial has ordered everyone in the Manhattan courthouse to wear N95 masks or masks of a similarly high quality, noting, “obviously, we have the variant” to consider. The jurors had been wearing cloth masks or surgical masks throughout much of the trial. 

New York City is also distributing 500,000 test kits and 1 million KN95 masks through community-based organizations in light of a new spike in cases, including almost 50,000 on Christmas Eve alone. 

And on Sunday, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders called on Congress to demand the mass production and distribution of N95 masks. “As we face the rapidly spreading omicron variant, we should remember that not all face masks are created equal,” he tweeted. 

Traps smaller particles

So what makes “95” the magic number? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the N95 respirators (commonly called “masks”) approved by the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) filter at least 95% of airborne particles. 

The KN95 masks are similar, except they are certified differently; KN95 is the Chinese standard, while N95 is the U.S. standard. But KN95 manufacturers can seek emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in health care settings. And the FDA has granted EUA to several KN95 masks already. 

The KF94 masks filter 94% of aerosol particulates, and meet the South Korean government’s standards. They haven’t been granted EUA by the FDA for health care settings yet.

The N95, KN95 and KF94 masks are made with an electrostatically-charged material that actually catches smaller particles — preventing you from inhaling them — and filtering microscopic particles that are just a few nanometers in size. 

In comparison, cloth masks can be good at filtering large droplets, but smaller particles and aerosols potentially carrying airborne viruses can still pass through. Again: cloth masks are still better than not wearing a mask at all, as multi-layer cloth masks can still block 50% to 70% of fine droplets and particles, the CDC says. But the N95s filter 95% of particles. “Many of us in public health have been saying this for over a year now: a simple one-layer cloth mask does not provide nearly enough protection,” said Wen.

Coronavirus Update: Changing isolation times for people with COVID-19 is ‘under serious consideration’ in the U.S. as cases surge

For those struggling to get their hands on N95, KN95 or KF94 masks, Wen noted that double-masking with a fitted three-ply surgical mask and a cloth mask can boost the effectiveness of your cloth or surgical masks. “People should at least be wearing a three-ply surgical mask,” she said.  

Counterfeits are out there

But be warned that counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks are running rampant online, unfortunately, so the CDC has this guide to spotting real vs. fake NIOSH-approved masks. The NIOSH also has a list of approved N95 respirators often sold at some drugstores and home improvement stores.

And organizations such as Project 95, which works to protect communities by providing equal access to personal protective equipment like N95 masks and COVID-19 tests, are careful to source NIOSH-certified and FDA-cleared masks and testing kits. 

Granted, it doesn’t matter how efficient the mask itself is if someone is wearing it wrong. The mask needs to cover both your nose and mouth, with the mask secured under your chin. And it should fit snugly against your face, with no large openings or gaps around your nose, mouth or the sides of your face. You can find the CDC guidelines on mask-wearing here. 

The number of new COVID-19 cases continues rising at an exponential pace, with record cases being reported in several states including Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York over the holiday weekend. The U.S. reported 189,714 new cases on Dec. 26, according to the New York Times tracker; that figure is lower than it should be given the likely slowdown in the number of COVID-19 tests performed on Christmas Day. The daily average is 214,299 cases per day, the highest figure since Jan. 17.