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Upgrade your mask game: Why omicron is leading health officials to recommend better masks

FILE - Registered nurse Scott McGieson wears an N95 mask as he walks out of a patient's room in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, Jan. 14, 2022, in Seattle. The Biden administration will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans starting next week, now that federal officials are emphasizing their better protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19 over cloth face coverings. The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand. .  (Elaine Thompson)
FILE - Registered nurse Scott McGieson wears an N95 mask as he walks out of a patient's room in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, Jan. 14, 2022, in Seattle. The Biden administration will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans starting next week, now that federal officials are emphasizing their better protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19 over cloth face coverings. The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand. . (Elaine Thompson)

Omicron is very contagious, and health officials are asking the public to up its mask game.

Public health officials estimate that the omicron variant is more contagious than the delta variant, which was already more contagious than 2020 strains of the virus. For each person infected with the delta variant, an approximate five to seven additional people could be infected.

This means a person with omicron could infect even more people.

It is so transmissible that airborne particles likely infected two fully vaccinated people who were quarantining in a Hong Kong hotel across a hallway from each other.

Neither patient left their room and only opened their doors to be tested and get food.

“Airborne transmission across the corridor is the most probable mode of transmission,” the research from the University of Hong Kong says.

A variant like omicron requires a better mask, experts say.

“It’s more important to wear a well-fitting mask if it’s more transmissible,” said Dr. Heather Brennan, family physician at Kaiser Permanente.

It’s possible to increase the effectiveness of a cloth or disposable mask by doubling them up. Brennan said wearing a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask can help make both fit better around a person’s nose and mouth.

The virus can spread through airborne particles and respiratory droplets from a person’s nose and mouth, so both need to be covered for a mask to be effective.

Certain activities have higher transmission rates than others based on how often people take their masks off. Restaurants and bars or other settings where people are taking their masks off will have higher transmission rates than other activities in which people keep their masks on the whole time, Brennan said.

Some public health and hospital officials are recommending that people use KN95s or N95 respirators, which are more effective at keeping particles out.

These masks can be difficult to find and more costly than disposable and cloth masks, however.

There are also fake masks in the marketplace, and figuring out which masks are good and which are not can be challenging.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 60% of KN95s are counterfeit or fake, so buying masks from a trusted source is important.

The CDC does have a list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators for reference, and other organizations like Project N95 are vetting the safety and quality of masks for customers.

The CDC also has tip list to avoid buying faulty masks.

“We want people to consider upping their masking strategy, whether that be KN95s or surgical masks,” State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said earlier this month.

If people do not have access to better masks, he also encouraged double-masking. The Department of Health has distributed surgical masks to community organizations on request.

“The most important mask-wearing is the one that’s actually being worn – and it has to be worn properly,” Shah told reporters Jan. 6.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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