Does your surgical mask protect you as omicron spreads? Here’s what to know

Experts have made it clear: Cloth masks are no longer good enough as the omicron coronavirus variant spreads.

Instead, they recommend upgrading to a KN95 or N95 mask as they offer better protection against the variant, which is more transmittable and evades vaccines more easily than past coronavirus strains.

But what about surgical masks?

Some experts seem to agree that, while they’re not as good as KN95s or N95s, they are a better option than cloth masks and certainly better than no mask at all. For those who choose to keep wearing them, however, there are some things to keep in mind. Here’s what to know.

How much protection do surgical masks offer?

Real N95s, which are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S., and KN95s, which are manufactured in China, filter out 95% of particles and offer the best protection against COVID-19 in light of the omicron variant, experts have said.

Both are widely available, unlike during a shortage of PPE earlier in the pandemic, but KN95s tend to be more accessible to the general public, USA Today reported.

The downside? The masks tend to be more expensive, and it can be easy to be tricked by counterfeit versions sold online. So, for those who don’t have access, experts seem to agree that surgical masks are the next best option, following lastly by cloth masks.

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“If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

Surgical masks, however, do not filter or block “very small particles” that could be spread through coughs and sneezes, according to the FDA, and their loose fit does not offer “complete protection” from germs.

A Wall Street Journal graphic based on data from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists showed how long it takes to “transmit an infectious dose” of COVID-19 based on which mask a person is wearing.

The results were published before the omicron variant started spreading but also demonstrate that a surgical mask, while behind an N95, offers more protection than a cloth mask or no mask at all.

How to increase your protection from a surgical mask

If you’re going to continue wearing a surgical mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to make sure it has “multiple layers of non-woven material” and a nose wire and that if fits properly over your nose and mouth to “prevent leaks.”

Masks with gaps around the sides of the face or nose should not be worn, the CDC says.

Dr. Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, told CBS Boston that it’s important to have a good seal, especially around your nose.

“There are ways to really improve the performance of a surgical mask by improving its fit,” Marr told the outlet. “One way is to use some little kind of clips or toggles on the ear loops so that you can tighten it up so it pulls closer to your face.”

You can also “knot and tuck” the ear loops where they join the edge of the mask, according to the CDC.

Double masking, with a cloth mask worn over a surgical mask, can offer increased protection and a better fit.

Unlike some other masks, surgical masks cannot be reused, according to the FDA.

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“If your surgical mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove it, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one,” the FDA said. “To safely discard your surgical mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.”

Any time you put on or remove a face mask, the CDC says you should wash your hands immediately. Only handle masks by the ear loops or ties and do not touch the mask while wearing it.

This story was originally published January 11, 2022 12:35 PM.

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