Why Health Experts Recommend Retiring Cloth Masks in the Fight Against Omicron
"Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of omicron," CNN Medical Analyst 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, said last week.
"We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask," she also said, referring to the standard disposable face covering available at most pharmacies and general goods stores. "You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone."
The call to nix cloth masks conflicts with the mask-wearing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which encourage masks that "have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric" for the general public.
Those recommendations were last updated on Oct. 25, about a month before the first cases of omicron were detected in South Africa.
Wen added that ideally, "you should be wearing a KN95 or N95 mask," which also is in conflict with the CDC—who still says that masks "specially labeled 'surgical' N95 respirators ... should be prioritized for healthcare personnel."
While that prioritization was recommended early on in the pandemic last year, it has "been many months since supply of N95s (has been) an issue," Wen said.
"If we're going to go as far as to say that masks are required—when we don't come from a mask-wearing culture and people don't like wearing masks—at least recommend that they wear the most effective mask," Wen said.
Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said, per CNN, that while cloth masks can filter and block large droplets from an infected person's respiratory tract, more effective masks such as N95s can filter both large droplets and smaller aerosols and particles that have been proven to transmit COVID-19.
"Unfortunately there's been so much misinformation that's come out about masking that it's become so polarized," Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told The Atlantic in October. "People are just divided into either you're masked or you're not. And that would be like saying everything that has wheels"—including a tricycle and a jetliner—"is the same."
Other professionals in the field agree: Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech researcher who studies how viruses transmit in the air, told NPR this month that "cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron," per CNBC.
A request for comment from the media relations department at the CDC about the most updated mask-wearing recommendations was not immediately returned to PEOPLE.
Wen also noted that various countries including Germany and Austria have "switched their standard to say that a face covering in public must be at least a medical-grade surgical mask" in certain settings.
In a separate study, the CDC did note that "the filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly."
Additionally, a science brief published on Dec. 6 by the CDC said that "upwards of 80 percent blockage has been achieved in human experiments, with cloth masks in some studies performing on par with surgical masks as barriers for source control."
"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," said former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams Thursday on CNN's AC360. "We need more testing. We need better masking. That's how we get through this."
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