Should You Wear Medical-Grade Masks to Protect Against New COVID-19 Variants?

In recent months, new variants of COVID-19, which spread more easily between people, have emerged in a number of countries, most notably the United Kingdom and South Africa.

In response to the threat of a more contagious form of the virus, some European countries have updated their mask-wearing regulations. In Germany, France and Austria, people are now required to wear medical-grade masks (also known as N95 masks) in public places, rather than fabric masks or disposable masks.

For now, the new COVID-19 variants aren’t circulating widely in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State of New Jersey and our neighboring states (New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware) still recommend wearing a two to three layer fabric mask in public, rather than medical-grade masks.

Well-fitting fabric masks are recommended for now

One important reason why medical-grade masks aren’t recommended for the general U.S. population is that they’re being reserved for health care workers. In some geographic areas, or in certain types of health care facilities, medical-grade masks may still be in short supply. Recommending the use of medical-grade masks to the general public may make it even more difficult for some hospitals and other facilities to maintain their supplies of medical-grade masks. But could the recommendation about mask usage change over time?

“For the time being, the CDC hasn’t changed its guidance, which is likely to help ensure that hospitals, assisted living facilities, doctors’ offices and other health care facilities can maintain a steady supply of medical-grade masks for their health care workers, but the recommendations may be updated at some point,” says Daniel Varga, M.D., chief physician executive at Hackensack Meridian Health. “A growing number of researchers and medical experts are recommending the usage of medical-grade masks among the general public, especially for those aged 60 and older or those with chronic health conditions which put them at risk of COVID-19 complications. If it’s possible to expand the production and distribution of medical-grade masks so that the general public can use them and health care facilities can maintain ample supplies, that might be an ideal situation.”

Masks reduce the risk of COVID-19

Medical-grade masks are proven to effectively block 95 percent of airborne particles when they’re worn properly. Health care workers who wear medical-grade masks are fitted to ensure that the masks seal to their faces. Members of the public who may attempt to wear medical-grade masks without the proper training will not get the full protection, if the masks don’t fit correctly.

You probably don’t have data about the effectiveness of your store-bought or homemade fabric masks, but researchers have found that fabric masks help to reduce the spread of the virus by creating a physical barrier over the nose and mouth and by limiting the spread of airborne particles.

Face masks are most effective when you wear them properly, rather than when they’re used incorrectly. You can even exercise comfortably while wearing a mask.

How to make sure you’re protected

If you’re concerned about the new COVID-19 variants, there are ways to ensure that you’re getting the most protection out of your fabric masks. Make sure that your mask:

  • is made from a tightly woven, washable material
  • has two or three layers of breathable fabric (look for moisture-wicking and antibacterial layers)
  • if possible, find a mask that has room for an extra filtering layer that can help with protection
  • fits snugly against your face, over your nose and mouth, with no gaps at the top or sides
  • has an adjustable metal wire on the bridge of your nose to fit to the shape of your face
  • doesn’t slip off of your nose; adjust the ear loops, if possible, to ensure that it stays in place
  • does not have an exhale valve, which will not protect others from your airborne particles

advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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