Monday, Jun 27, 2022

Cloth Masks No Match For Omicron: Your Guide To Choosing The Right Face Cover

Reusable cloth masks became a fashion rage in the last two years but with the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron, scientists are back to recommending good ol' N95 masks.

Cloth Masks No Match For Omicron: Your Guide To Choosing The Right Face Cover
Reusable cloth masks area hit but may not help prevent an Omicron infection AP/PTI

In the last two years since the pandemic, a new category has been added to fashion accessories - masks. Facemasks of all hues, shapes, materials, and designs have come in vogue ever since the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the use of face and nose coverings to prevent catching or spreading the virus. With the emergence of Omicron, the latest 'variant of concern of Omicron, however, scientists are back to suggesting the use of only the trusty (and boring) N95 masks. According to experts, cloth masks are not enough to protect against Omicron, a variant that has been deemed to be three times more transmissible than Delta.

Do all masks work the same?

With cases of Omicron spreading rapidly around the country, strict Covid-19 protocols are back up in various countries, including India, with health authorities once again stressing the importance of social distancing and wearing masks. Fresh mask mandates have also been issued in the UK, where rules regarding the wearing of masks were relaxed earlier in the year.

However, not all masks offer the same protection. While reusable cloth masks may be an attractive and often cheaper option, they usually don't work against Covid-19. With Omicron being dubbed as highly transmissible, here is a look at some of the best masks being. recommended by doctors and health practitioners.

What masks to use?

Experts have for long suggested the use of superior masks or high-functioning respirators over reusable cloth masks. But N95 isn't the only mask that can be depended upon. Others include KN95 and KF94 respirators or other types of face masks that are made using materials containing an electrostatic charge. These types of mask can attract and absorb virus particles so that the wearer does not end up inhaling them as the electrostatic charge in the material can pull virus particles from its surrounding air.

Most cloth masks do not follow any standard safety procedures and are often made of single-layer material that offers minimal particle filtration. The China-produced  KN95 masks, according to a report in CNBC, can filter out up to 95 per cent of particles in the air.

Why cloth masks won't work against Omicron

According to researcher Lindsey Marr from Virginia Tech in US, cloth masks will just "not cut it" with Omicron. Speaking to NPR, Marr said that while a cloth masks provides "marginal" protection and acts as a basic filter, it may not work against the highly contagious Omicron which has been seen to multiply 70 times faster inside the human respiratory tract than previous variants like Delta. This means that those infected with Omicron have a chance of exhaling more amounts of the virus. Additionally, a person may only require a few particles of Omicron to get affected.

Will surgical masks work?

Most good quality surgical masks are made of polypropylene, a material made out of non-woven plastic that also has an electrostatic charge. While these may provide some amount f particle filtration, most of them don't fit well. Since inhaling just a few particles of Omicron may result in infection, it is important to choose masks that are not only made of the right material but the right fit.

Which mask fits best? 

Cloth and surgical masks often offer patchy coverage as they may not fit well. In case a mask, even ones made of appropriate material, do not fit well, the wearer is at risk of inhaling viral particles. In contrast, N95 and KN95 masks give a tighter fit. Some users, however, have complained of breathing difficulty in these masks. the US-produced N95 masks offer better breathability than KN95. Earlier, during the Delt wave, experts had also suggested double-masking - i.e, wearing one surgical or cloth mask followed by an N95 or KN95 mask on top of it. 

New mask guidelines for healthcare workers

In wake of Omicron's emergence, the World Health Organisation has issued new guidelines for protecting healthcare workers, especially those treating Covid-19 infections. Workers have been asked o ensure the use of medical masks along with PPE kits and also take additional droplet precautions when dealing with Covid-19 patients. Particulate respirators have been recommended for workers engaged in certain tasks like aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs).

Beware of counterfeits

A large quantity of inferior quality or untested masks is presently available in the market. when purchasing masks, ensure to check the approval ratings of the mask. Avoid purchasing unsealed or unpackaged masks. 

Thus wearing a mask that offers maximum protection is a must to ensure maximum prevention and spread of Omicron.