Time to Upgrade Your Mask?

The Omicron variant of Covid19 is so extraordinarily contagious it's time to take a closer look at mask quality

“CLOTH MASKS ARE LITTLE MORE than facial decorations.” That’s the remarkable statement from CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. She adds: “This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months.”

I recall that at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many discouraged us from using N-95 masks. We didn’t even have enough of these more protective masks in our hospital settings. Now, I suggest you ditch your cloth mask in favor of a surgical mask or preferably an N-95-type covering.

Today we look at the rise of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. We will then explore the current guidance of the US Centers for Disease Control regarding masks in this new phase of the pandemic.

Omicron emerges

Throughout the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been using genomic surveillance to track variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Here’s a timeline of the Omicron variant:

  • November 24, 2021: A new variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, is reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). Researchers discovered the new variant in specimens collected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana and on November 14, 2021, in South Africa.
  • November 26, 2021: WHO named the B.1.1.529 Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern (VOC).
  • November 30, 2021: The United States designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern.
  • December 1, 2021: Researchers confirm the first case in the USA case of Omicron.

The Centers for Disease Control recommendations for Covid-19 mitigation include layered prevention strategies. These include masking, improving ventilation, distancing, handwashing, and testing to slow SARS-COV-2 transmission and stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CDC gets more specific regarding masks, offering that everyone ages two years or older, including those fully vaccinated, wear masks in public indoor places in areas of substantial or high transmission.

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Time to change your mask

Should we follow the leads of selected European countries, including Austria and Germany, that recommend that in-public face covering be with at least a medical-grade surgical mask?

In early 2021, the French government mandated that citizens wear surgical FFP1 masks or fabric masks that blocked at least 90 percent of particles — in public spaces. No more homemade masks.

In January 2021, the German government followed suit, requiring all to wear FFP1 or FFP2 masks on public transport. Bavaria went a step further, requiring surgical grade N95 respirators ( filtering 95 percent of air particles) in public spaces and shops for January 25, 2021.

Cloth masks are washable and re-wearable but provide suboptimal protection against the Omicron variant of the Covid19 virus. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Let’s look at specific mask types.

Cloth masks. Advantages? These masks are washable and re-wearable. They are composed of a variety of woven and non-woven materials. They have a 26 to 80 percent effectiveness against COVID19.

Cloth masks protect others from your emissions and give the wearer some protection. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a 3-layer cloth mask.

Surgical masks are a step up from cloth masks but do not protect you and N95 masks. Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash

Surgical masks. These masks also reduce risk to others and provide the use some protection. They are single-use and are composed of three layers, with a filtration layer in-between. Surgical masks provide more protection than cloth masks, but not as much as respirator masks. The World Health Organization recommends surgical masks for healthcare workers like me.

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

Respirator masks. These single-use masks reduce risk to both the user and those around them. With their electrostatic filters, respirator masks capture 95 percent of viral particles. Unlike cloth or surgical masks, respirator masks (such as N95 ones) protect the wearer by filtering the air’s inflow and outflow.

Respirator masks are also better at protecting you from smaller droplets (aerosols). If you can manage to fit the mask correctly, these FFP2 filter at least 94 percent of particles.

The tight weave of surgical masks gives us a high level of outflowing protection. Doctors like me use them around patients. On the other hand, cloth masks are less reliable. Omicron means stepping up our game — Go N95 if you are able.

When fit properly, N95 respirator masks approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health can filter up to 95 percent of particles in the air, according to the CDC. Surgical or disposable masks are around 10 percent less effective than N95 respirators.

While we don’t know why the Omicron variant of Covid19 is so extraordinarily contagious, I am switching to N95 masks for myself. I work with immunocompromised patients, and while getting infected with Omicron thus far appears less dangerous than getting hit with the Delta variant, I want to protect my at-risk friends, family, and patients.

A cloth mask is better than nothing. If you are able, get a medical-grade surgical mask, especially for environments such as train stations and grocery stores. And if you can get ahold of them, respiratory-type masks may offer the best protection.

Thank you for joining me.


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.
More from this author