Allison Arwady

Cloth, KN95 or N95 Masks? Chicago's Top Doctor Explains Which Best Protects From Omicron

KN95 masks, as well as N95s, filter out at least 95% of air particles, but N95 masks have stricter pressure drop requirements

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As cases of the omicron variant soar nationwide, health officials assert getting a booster shot and the COVID-19 vaccine offer the best protection, but wearing a face mask is also crucial in limiting the spread of the virus.

While face masks have become part of the country's landscape in the past two years, health officials say because the omicron variant is more contagious, a reusable cloth mask maybe not be the best option.

In a question-and-answer session, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, stressed that "everybody wearing a mask is the most important thing."

"The biggest jump in protection is from no mask to any mask," she said.

KN95 masks, the most widely available high-filtration masks, offer better protection than cloth masks, Arwady noted. The masks are "good to use" when available, she said, but signified the importance of overall mask use.

"As long as it feels comfortable for you to have one of these on, wear one," she said. "It's got a higher protection level."

The CDPH health commissioner said while she possesses KN95 masks, she doesn't regularly wear one and may only do so in certain settings involving large crowds.

"When I have put them on, might be like, say I have to pass through an airport or something. There's going to be a lot of exposure," she said. "...It's not the one I choose for everyday use. I'm vaccinated, boosted, etc."

KN95 masks, as well as N95s, filter out at least 95% of air particles, but N95 masks have stricter pressure drop requirements and are regularly considered the "gold standard" for masking.

N95s are specifically reserved for health care workers, and with a current shortage, are only recommended in such settings.

According to an article from the Nebraska Medicine, mask materials that have high filtering efficiency in theory work best in combating the omicron surge, but fit is especially important.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says she doesn't believe the U.S. has reached the peak of the omicron coronavirus wave impacting the country.

Several studies have found that a multi-layer cloth mask can have effective filtration efficiency that is just as high as KN95s or other high-filtration masks, according to the article.

Arwady previously said that while double-masking is a good way to provide “excellent protection," she too stressed the importance of having a mask that properly fits.

“If you’ve got gaps, you can have droplets leaking out. We’ve been recommending wearing one of the surgical masks with a cloth mask over it,” she said. “That’s a good way to have excellent protection. If you’re wearing KN95 and the KN94’s, go for it."

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