Prior to COVID-19, wearing masks to protect against the transfer of viruses was something that was done almost exclusively by doctors and nurses as part of their healthcare work. As COVID became a pandemic, suddenly wearing a mask became the norm for everyone, from students to senators to system engineers. While recommendations for mask wearing are encountered everywhere, reliable guidance on what to wear and how to wear it is not as readily available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been a central voice on COVID prevention from the beginning of the pandemic, has consistently encouraged mask wearing with the mantra “any mask is better than no mask.” However, updated guidance on mask wearing issued by the CDC on January 14 suggests that some masks are better than others for preventing infection.
How do masks protect us?
COVID spreads when the virus is transferred from person to person on airborne particles and droplets. In other words, when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, or simply breathes, they can release particles from their mouth or nose that can carry the virus and spread it to another person.
Masks work to prevent the spread of the virus by capturing airborne particles and droplets before they can spread to another person. However, if the material from which the mask is made allows particles to pass through it, prevention and protection is not effective.
Experts recommend “the candle test” to determine the effectiveness of a mask for preventing the transfer of airborne particles and droplets. To conduct a candle test, simply determine if you can blow out a candle by blowing through the mask. If you can, then the mask is not considered effective for preventing the transfer of the COVID virus.
How well do cloth masks protect us?
Cloth masks, or fabric masks, is a catch-all title that is used to describe masks made from common textiles like cotton. Cloth masks in a variety of fabrics and fashions are readily available at a variety of retailers, from supermarkets to drugstores. The comfort provided by cloth masks as well as the fact that they can be washed and worn again has made them a popular choice.
The degree of protection that cloth masks provide depends in large part on the fabric from which they are made. Cotton, for example, is considered a breathable fabric that allows air to circulate. As such, it is easy to see why cotton masks would not be effective at preventing the spread of COVID.
Health experts have argued that cloth masks have not been as effective in preventing the spread of the Omicron variant as they were against earlier, less infectious variants of COVID. While the CDC does not discourage the use of cloth masks, it makes it clear that they do not offer “the highest level of protection.”
How well do N95 masks protect us?
N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are engineered to provide a higher level of protection from exposure to COVID and other airborne particles. The masks are subject to testing by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which certify that they filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles. In comparison, a cloth mask typically filters less than 25 percent of airborne particles.
In addition to providing a more effective level of filtering, N95 masks are also engineered to provide a tighter seal. If masks have gaps around the edges, they can allow airborne particles to get out or in via those gaps, circumventing whatever protection the fabric provides.
The CDC has determined that N95 masks provide the highest level of protection when worn correctly and fitted properly. They are especially recommended for those who are caregivers, who are at a high risk for contracting COVID, or who work in a crowded environment or in an environment where social distancing is not possible.
What is the best process for staying safe?
While N95 masks and other respirators provide a level of protection that is higher than that provided by cloth masks, it comes with a price; N95 masks typically are considered single-use. Unlike cloth masks, N95 masks cannot be cleaned and reused.
The “single use” designation that is printed on most N95 masks is meant to guide medical professionals who are using them in a hospital setting. However, most experts do not recommend that N95 masks being used outside of medical settings be worn indefinitely. Guidance on when to replace a mask typically ranges from two to five days or when the mask becomes soiled.
For those wishing to achieve the highest level of protection, the cost of N95 masks is not the only consideration. Because they must be replaced regularly, keeping a supply of the masks on hand can also be challenging.
Patrick Callaway is the Founder and CEO of Octofund Group, a company that provides masks and other supplies essential to COVID-19 care and protection. Octofund witnessed firsthand the hardships its customers faced in trying to obtain quality COVID care products in a timely manner.
“We understand how hard it can be financially as well as emotionally to ensure that you and the people you love are protected from COVID,” Callaway says. “Staying safe is the most important factor and we aim to help those in need.”
To make sure that frontline workers and other high risk individuals can obtain the supplies that they need, Octofund maintains a verifiable supply chain that caters to those maintaining an honest supply of personal protection equipment.
“Supporting those on the frontlines is our highest priority,” Callaway explains. “We guarantee our trusted supply chain in order to make sure we provide the highest quality service to those making a difference today.”
The recent CDC update states in no uncertain language that masking is an important component in the ongoing strategy to prevent the spread of COVID. Those wishing to achieve the highest level of protection will need to consider wearing N95 masks and making sure that they have a reliable source that can provide N95s regularly for the foreseeable future.