Omicron: SAGE warning calls for policy decisions 'sooner'
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With the highly contagious Omicron variant driving a surge in infections around the globe, many people are trying to figure out how to best protect themselves. In addition to vaccines, masks have been touted as an important tool to shield ourselves from spreading or being exposed to the coronavirus but what makes for the best COVID-19 mask?
While there are a number of good face mask options, the most effective face masks according to researchers continues to be a protective N95 mask.
N95 masks are made from multiple layers of synthetic material (typically a polypropylene plastic polymer) and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose.
The mask filters out and capture 95 percent of tiny 0.3-micron particles in the air.
N95 masks offer protection against particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, and while the coronavirus itself is around 0.1 microns in size, it’s usually attached to something larger, such as droplets that are generated by everyday activities like breathing and talking.
Neil Maniar, professor of Public Health Practice, associate chair of the Department of Health Sciences, and director of the Master of Public Health program at Northeastern, said: “There are three things you want to think about with a mask: Fit, filtration, and function.
“With omicron, all three of these are important. But what’s vital is fit and filtration.”
Those two pieces can go hand-in-hand, Professor Maniar adds.
“The poor fit of a mask can negate its ability to filter out harmful stuff, like viral particles.”
Certified N95 or similar respirators are considered the gold-standard face coverings for blocking viral particles.
Studies have found that an N95 that was properly fitted was about 99 percent effective at keeping out particles of the same size as the coronavirus particles.
But not everyone has access to a N95 mask that fits properly and can be worn every day.
While medical masks are often considered better filters of viral particles, researchers found that some cloth masks can actually rival the looser, ear-loop-style disposable procedural masks that many people wear – removing anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of particles.
It may seem as though a tighter weave makes for a better mask.
Another aspect to consider, according to Steve Lustig, associate professor and the associate chair of research in chemical engineering at Northeastern, is whether your mask has waterproof properties.
“When you get sprayed, because someone sneezes on you or someone coughs, or you cough, you’re loading this mask material with all this liquid,” he says.
“And if that liquid permeates all the way across the mask, well, then you could be imbibing the virus just because it flows by liquid.”
Waterproof material isn’t the only way to avoid that damp disaster, however.
The researchers found that duckbill-shaped masks – masks that are shaped and stiff enough to stay away from touching your mouth – are more effective, too.
According to a report cited by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, N95 respirators have two main advantages over simple cloth coverings or surgical masks.
First, the report found that N95 masks are more than 95 percent efficient at filtering 0.3-μm particles — particles that are even smaller than the droplets created when talking, coughing, or sneezing — making them an effective way to filter out germs and bacteria.
The study also found that N95 masks often fit better over the face and around the neck, ensuring that droplets and particles do not leak around the mask.
“You want something that’s also going to allow you to be able to comfortably engage in whatever activities you’re doing while wearing the mask,” added Professor Maniar.
“And that’s why there are different options for different scenarios.”
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