With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considering a recommendation that Americans wear more protective masks amid a surge in COVID cases caused by the omicron variant, medical professionals are offering their advice on which facial coverings are best.
Most medical professionals maintain that any mask is better than no mask out there, but different facial coverings come with different levels of protection.
The top-of-the-line mask in terms of protection is the N-95, which filters out airborne particles at a remarkable rate. Early in the pandemic, experts urged Americans not to purchase the masks, preferring to save them for medical professionals, but with shortages becoming less of an issue, many experts, including Dr. Allison Arwady, say that the N-95 may be worth getting.
“The healthcare system has what they need now for the N-95’s,” she said.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
N-95 masks are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and carry a “NIOSH” stamp.
The masks also have bands that go behind the wearer’s head, rather than ear loops.
“The whole point of these is that the seal around your nose and mouth is a lot tighter,” Arwady said.
The next step down are KN-95 and KF-94 masks, although they tend to be more expensive.
Dr. Justin Fiala, a professor at Northwestern University, says that those masks are good for higher-risk settings where contact with members of the public is expected.
“If you’re going to a crowded place, grocery shopping, or if it’s not a well-ventilated place, it would behoove you to get the highest level of filtration,” he said.
The main issue with KN-95 masks is counterfeiting, as the CDC warns that as many as 60% of the masks on the market are counterfeit.
The CDC’s website does have information on brands and product numbers that are from reputable companies, and they encourage residents to seek out that information before purchasing the coverings.
The next step down are surgical masks, which experts say are more protective than cloth masks.
“Surgical masks are comfortable for me. I like them, and they’re what I’m used to,” Fiala said.
Regardless of what type of mask a resident chooses, the ultimate key is the fit. The more snug of fit a mask has, the more it will protect you from illness.
“I am layering a cloth mask over (the surgical mask) because for me that is something I can keep on indefinitely without a problem,” Fiala said.
As for cloth masks, experts say that some type of mask is better than no mask, but recommend that a surgical mask be worn underneath.
“What those cloth masks really achieve is catching most of the large droplet particles expelled with sneezing and talking,” Fiala said. “What it misses though is the aerosol, very fine droplets that will linger in the air for hours, even after someone leaves the room.