face masks

How Should You Wear a Face Mask to Prevent COVID Infection? Here's What Experts Say as Omicron Surges

Health officials recommend cleaning reusable cloth masks "as soon as they become dirty" or at least once per day. Disposable masks should be thrown away after one use

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As omicron COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain high across the U.S., health officials broke down how to best wear a face covering in order to prevent contracting 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.

Here's what Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, had to say:

In a question-and-answer session, Arwady 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.

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.

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."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailed the best practices for mask-wearing, noting that face coverings are currently required on planes, buses, trains and public transportation in the U.S.

According to the CDC, masks should:

  • Have two more more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • Completely cover your nose and mouth
  • Fit snugly against the sides of your face without gaps
  • Have a nose wire to prevent air from escaping out of the top of the mask

Masks should not:

  • Be made of fabric that makes it difficult to breathe, such as vinyl
  • Have exhalation valves or vents which allow for virus particles to escape
  • Be labeled as "surgical" N95 respirators, as these are prioritized for health care workers

The CDC added that a gaiter can be worn as a mask with two layers or folded to make two layers. Face shields are not officially recommended, however, as the efficacy is unknown at this time.

For those in cold weather, such as in Chicago, federal officials recommend wearing a scarf, ski mask or balaclava over a face covering. These clothing items are not substitutes for masks, though.

For another layer of protection, the CDC said people can wear a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask that has multiple layers of fabric. This way of wearing a mask may be a better fit for those with a beard.

Health officials recommend cleaning reusable cloth masks "as soon as they become dirty" or at least once per day. Disposable masks should be thrown away after one use.

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