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Explained: Which Mask Works Best Against The Omicron Variant?

Masks became a permanent feature in our daily lives overnight. Something we would have never imagined wearing at all times prior to 2020. And the only thing that evidently works against the deadly virus that shook up our lives.

And yet, confusion still prevails as with every wave, and new coronavirus variants, we hear new recommendations on which type of masks provide adequate protection and which don’t.

During India’s second wave, double masking with surgical masks was recommended and now, along with double masking, N95s are being recommended.

So are N95 better than cloth masks? Do double masking offer better protection or one sturdy mask will do? How does one choose a good mask?

With covid-19 cases presently skyrocketing, the mask recommendations have changed. During the second wave, double masking was the most recommended form, in which layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask was said to be most effective.

Now with the Omicron variant being more transmissible because of mutations in its spike proteins, the virus is believed to spread faster that previous variant. Though the Omicron variant will likely spread more easily than the original virus, how easily it spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. What is known, though, is the reinfection with Omicron is five times higher than it was with Delta. Hence the new recommendations for masks.

Recommended Mask For Omicron

During the initial wave of Covid-19, medical professionals were facing a shortage of N95 masks. Experts had then recommended the use of surgical masks and other layered masks approved by health authorities.

However, in view of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, experts have suggested using an N95 or KN95 mask.

A study by America’s 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. There are then several questions as to how long it takes for Covid-19 to transmit between people wearing different kinds of masks.

How Quickly Do You Get Infected

According to the ACGIH’s Pandemic Response Task Force’s analysis If you are not wearing any mask you are most susceptible.

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In the case of a cloth mask, it takes 27 minutes for a non-person to get infected from an infected host, if both the parties are wearing cloth masks.

If both parties are wearing surgical masks, it offers protection for up to one hour.

If both the infected person and the non-infected potential host are wearing N95 masks, it would take 25 hours of continuous exposure for the virus to spread, which means that the protection offered by N95 masks is the MOST effective.

Even though this analysis dates to the time before the Omicron variant struck us, N95 masks have proven to be most effective against transmissions.

India & Masks

India, like the rest of the world, has faced issues trying to convince its citizens to mask up. While images of election rallies and revenge travels have gone viral, a recent survey data shows how Tier 1, 2 and 3 cities were amongst the worst offenders.

A mask adherence study conducted by Digital India Foundation has found that across 11 cities in India that were studied,  Mumbai is on the top.

Data reveals that the national capital has almost 50% of its population not wearing masks. And as far as what masks people are wearing, cloth masks have topped the list. But, now that the third wave fuelled by the omicron variant has struck us, choosing the right mask is important.

Choosing The Right Mask

Two factors are very important when choosing a mask: 1, the mask has to be tightly sealed; 2, it has to be good at filtration so that the respiratory droplets containing the virus are captured by the mask.

Cloth Mask: Last year, amid a worldwide shortage of N95 masks, experts had recommended cloth masks for the general public. Now, with a highly infectious variant in the air, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on a cloth mask for safety.

Surgical Mask: These lightweight masks are an improvement on ordinary cloth masks. They are better at trapping germs in your breath, but do not offer much protection to you. If you use public transport or need to spend time in an enclosed space such as an office, consider wearing something better than a surgical mask.

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N95/KN95 Mask:

Experts say that N95 masks could be helpful since they have a dense network of fibre. This makes it highly efficient in trapping larger droplets exhaled in the air along with blocking them.

In short, N95 masks are the US standards for respirator masks; KN95 masks are the Chinese standards for masks.

Healthcare experts have said that a cloth mask, which is effective in blocking the bigger chunk of aerosols carrying the virus, does not comply in a similar manner against the smaller ones as seen in the case of Omicron.

The Omicron variant has an extremely high transmission rate due to its unique mutations on the spike protein.

The N95 masks filters up to 95 per cent of particles in the air and seals tightly to the face when fitted properly. They may feel harder to breathe through than a cloth mask due to their tight fit. However, healthcare experts have also said not to wear an N95 mask if you have breathing issues.

CDC says that wearing a single-use surgical mask underneath and a cloth mask on top can offer extra protection, in case one faces issues with an N95 or a KN95 mask.

With cases rising rapidly, the one thing we are all sure of, is our need to mask up well. So mask up, and stay safe everyone.

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