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- Experts encourage a return to masking as the U.S. grapples with another COVID-19 surge caused by the Omicron variant.
- Masks work best if everyone wears them, but they can offer some protection even when you're the only one wearing it.
- Different types of mask have varying levels of effectiveness.
Several states have reinstated mask mandates following a surge in COVID-19 cases. Due to the Omicron variant's high transmission rate, experts say a return to masking indoors is a protective tool in addition to vaccination.
“Omicron is so transmittable that you don't want to take a chance,” Judith Flores, MD, a pediatrician and a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the New York Academy of Medicine, told Verywell.
Flores said she encourages people not only to wear masks, but to be choosy about the type of mask they purchase and how it fits. Things like double masking and opting for surgical masks instead of cloth masks when possible are more important now in the presence of Omicron, she added.
“I would either double up or wear a good three-ply surgical mask,” Flores said.
When Do Face Masks Work Best?
Shruti Gohil, MD, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health, told Verywell that Omicron highlights the importance of mask use because the variant appears more contagious and it's able to replicate more efficiently in the upper airway than other strains. Covering the nose and mouth can help prevent viral particles from entering the body, she said.
Face masks work best when everyone in a given environment is wearing them. But masking can offer some protection even when just one person is wearing one, too.
Gohil said that if people wear a mask when they're sick, their risk of spreading COVID-19 to other is reduced significantly.
“Earlier in this pandemic, people were wondering or second guessing its utility on the receiving end,” she said. “If you're wearing a mask and no one else is, does it help you? And I have to say, looking back, it seems clear.”
She added that hard data on this topic has yet to come together, but that her experiences in the hospital have demonstrated the effectiveness of masking for a range of people.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that a well-fitted mask can significantly reduce the wearer's exposure to respiratory droplets and aerosols from an infected individual who's also masked.
Flores, who recently traveled to a state with a low vaccination rate and without a mask mandate, said that she and her husband kept up with masking protocols despite the absence of local requirements.
“You have to reconcile with the fact that you're going to be exposed to people that are not masked, but you are masked,” she said. “So in that case, the best thing to do is to use the tools that you have at hand.”
This includes finding a mask that offers protection and fits well, wearing it properly, and keeping a safe social distance or leaving environments when the crowds are too large or too many people are unmasked, Flores added.
Which Type of Mask Should You Wear?
Some masks offer more protection than others, but that doesn’t mean every person needs to be wearing the most protective mask, Gohil explained. People who work in high risk settings, who are immunocompromised or older often need more protection than others.
Most Protective: N95
N95 masks offer the highest level of protection. These masks are meant for hospital settings and for people at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. According to Gohil, the average person should not have to wear an N95 mask and it should be reserved for those who truly need it.
The CDC recommends prioritizing N95 respirators for healthcare professionals. In some cases, vulnerable groups like people who are immunocompromised may need an N95, Gohil added.
Good Protection: Surgical Masks
Studies have shown that surgical masks can prevent COVID-19 transmission among the public population. Some masks are tested to ensure that they have a consistent quality and effectiveness if worn properly.
Varying Levels of Protection: Cloth Masks
Unlike surgical masks, cloth masks vary widely in material, fit, and effectiveness. Some cloth masks have a lot of protective linings that may prove effective against transmission, but it's hard to measure their quality, Flores said.
“Is there protection? Yes, there is protection,” she added. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not. You do the very best you can.”
The CDC recommends that people choose a mask with two or more layers of breathable, washable fabric that covers their nose and mouth.
More Protection: Double Masking
Wearing a single-use surgical mask underneath and a cloth mask on top can offer extra protection, according to the CDC.
“Double masking does seem to give you more protection if you're around people that are not masked,” Flores said. “But again, the other things apply.”
It's still important to follow other safety precautions like social distancing, good hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated or boosted to the extent possible, she added.
Flores said she doesn’t expect people to have to follow rigid masking protocols forever. But until case rates and hospitalization rates decline, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious, she added.
“When that happens, that's when you can relax,” Flores said. “Right now is a time where you make sure your seatbelt is on, because we may have some turbulence on this plane. But the time will come where we can land and get off and have some fun.”
What This Means For You
The Omicron variant is highly contagious and has been causing breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals. To stay protected from the spread, wear masks in indoor public settings and choose a mask that fits well and covers your mouth and nose.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.