Coronavirus

CDC won’t overhaul mask guidelines amid omicron. What are the current recommendations?

UPDATE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, Jan. 14, updated its “Types and Masks and Respirators” page to specify that “loosely woven cloth products” offer the least amount of protection, followed by “layered finely woven products.” Surgical masks and KN95s offer “even more protection” while approved respirators, like N95s, offer the most. The agency recommends wearing “the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.” The original story is below.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not overhaul its current mask guidelines.

The decision comes as many health experts have urged the public to switch to higher-quality masks, like N95s or KN95s, as the omicron coronavirus variant — which transmits and evades COVID-19 vaccines more easily — rapidly spreads throughout the United States.

But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted on Wednesday, Jan. 12, that the CDC’s recommendation that “any mask is better than no mask” will not change. She said, however, that the agency’s website will be updated to “best reflect the options available to people and the different levels of protection they provide.”

“We are updating the information on our mask website to provide information to the public,” Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing on Jan. 12. “It’s in need of updating right now. What I will say is the best mask that you wear is the one you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it.”

What are the current CDC mask guidelines?

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 2 and older who is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear masks in indoor public places. Anyone in areas with high numbers of cases should also “consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings” and when in close contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated.

For those who are fully vaccinated, the CDC advises wearing masks in public indoor settings in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates. As of Tuesday, Jan. 11, virtually every county in the United States was experiencing high transmission rates, per a CDC tracker.

CDC guidelines — which were last updated in October, before the omicron variant started spreading — do not specifically recommend that people wear a certain type of mask or respirator. Instead, it says to select one that has “two or more layers” of breathable fabric and a nose wire. It should also “completely cover” the nose and mouth and “fit snugly against the sides of your face” without gaps.

Reusable masks should be washed when they become dirty or at least once daily, the CDC says.

Surgical masks should be thrown out after one use. If wearing a surgical mask, the CDC says you can improve its fit and protection by wearing a cloth mask over it or knotting the earloops. These masks should have “multiple layers of non-woven material.”

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The CDC’s “types of masks and respirators” page notes that respirators, like KN95s and N95s, are “designed to protect you from particles” while other masks are “designed to contain your respiratory droplets and particles” and provide “some protection from particles expelled by others.”

It says people should not wear respirators with vents or exhalation valves, and to not wear them if you have “certain types of facial hair,” if it’s hard to breathe or if it’s wet or dirty.

The CDC also says that people “may want to consider the type of mask or respirator to wear depending on the situation” they are in. Some of those situations that may require higher quality masks include riding public transportation, taking care of someone with COVID-19, working in a setting where you interact with the public or if you are at increased risk for serious infection, immunocompromised or unvaccinated.

Walensky said Jan. 12 that the CDC will soon “provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks such as N95s and information that the public needs about how to make a choice about which mask is the right one for them.”

“But most importantly we want to highlight that the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably,” she said during the briefing.

What experts have said

Experts largely seem to agree that N95 or KN95 masks are the best option as omicron spreads, especially if in a crowd. Surgical masks may be the next best option followed lastly by cloth masks.

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“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations,” Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, said on CNN in December. “There’s no place for them in light of omicron.”

N95s and KN95s are not the same. While real N95s are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S., KN95s are manufactured and approved in China and tend to be more widely available to the general public in the U.S. Both, however, filter out 95% of particles, experts have said.

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Those who don’t have access to an N95 or KN95 can double mask — meaning a cloth mask fitted over a surgical mask — to boost their protection, some experts advise.

Prior to Walensky’s comments, some news outlets reported that the CDC was considering an update to its guidelines.

Wen tweeted on Jan. 12 that it’s “well past time for the CDC to update their mask guidance to recommend N95, KN95, or KF94 masks.”

“Covid is airborne,” she wrote. “Omicron is extremely contagious. The federal government should recommend the highest quality masks, and make them available free of charge.”

President Joe Biden said on Thursday, Jan. 13, the following week, his administration will announce how it’s “making high-quality masks available to the American people for free.”

This story was originally published January 13, 2022 11:01 AM.

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