Is Your Mask Effective Against Omicron?

Omicron is one of the more recent variants of concern of COVID-19. The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa on November 24, 2021 and was later detected in the US on December 1, 2021. Omicron is more likely to spread than previous variants, including the Delta variant, and continues to pose a serious health risk. 

Although Omicron can continue to spread even among those who are vaccinated and are without symptoms, there are several ways stay protected against omicron and other COVID-19 variants. FDA-approved or authorized vaccines are the best way to protect oneself and loved ones against severe symptoms from COVID-19. Moreover, wearing a mask greatly reduces the risk of infections, including breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals. Wearing the proper mask, in conjunction with social distancing and hand washing/sanitizing, can help protect you from COVID-19. 

There are additional methods to protect yourself from COVID-19, as shown in Figure 1, “Shield Yourself from COVID-19” below. 

What masks are available? Which are the most effective?

The most effective mask you can wear to protect yourself and others from Omicron is one that fits well and does not leave any air gaps when worn.

The best mask to protect yourself against the Omicron variant is one that, when worn, fits well and does not have any air gaps. As reported by the CDCany mask is better than no mask. 

There are several different types of masks available that are each effective in preventing the spread of the Omicron variant to some degree, with an important caveat – they must be worn properly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a study on the Fitted Filtration Efficiency (FFE) of various masks, which is how well a material filters out particles. The lower the FFE, the fewer particles it filters out increasing your risk for COVID infection. In other words, the higher the FFE, the more protective the mask. 

Not sure how to choose a mask? We’ve listed out the most common types of masks and their FFE below. We’ve also created a graphic to translate FFE roughly into how long you will be protected from an infectious dose of virus based on the mask you wear.

Cloth and Gaiter Masks
Least Protective: To be effective, cloth or gaiter masks must have tightly woven fabric that blocks light when held up and do not have exhalation valves, vents, or openings. A 2-layer woven nylon mask without an aluminum nose bridge has an FFE of 44.7%, but with an aluminum nose bridge it increases to 56.3%. A gaiter mask is a tube-like mask that covers the nose, mouth, and neck. A single-layer woven polyester gaiter has an FFE 37.8%. With more layers, gaiter masks increase in filtration efficiency, but they need to be layered or have a high thread count to be effective. 

Procedure or Surgical Masks
More Protective: Procedure or surgical masks are also available and effective if they fit correctly over one’s nose, mouth, and chin preventing leaks. Surgical masks have an FFE of 71.5%, which is higher than cloth masks but there are modifications that may need to be made to increase efficiency. Some modifications include tying the loops, tucking the corners of the mask in, and formatting the mask to be tight fitting with rubber bands or nylon hosiery sleeves. Additional modification methods that increase FFE can be found on the EPA website.

Respirator Masks (N95s and KN95s)
Most Protective: Finally, the most protective masks (when worn correctly!) are respirator masks such as N95s and KN95s. N95 and KN95 respirators have an FFE of 98.4%, which is the highest filtration found in masks. Recently the Biden Administration announced they will be supplying 400 million N95 masks free to the public starting in February 2022. The masks will be available at local pharmacies and community health centers.

Respirator masks offer the highest level of protection against Omicron and other variants of COVID-19, but it is important to recognize that these masks may not be the most effective for you. The most effective mask you can wear to protect yourself and others from Omicron is one that fits well and does not leave any air gaps when worn.

How to spot fake N95 masks?

During the pandemic when the need for masks outweighed demand, cases of counterfeit masks made the news. To ensure your mask is authentic, you should utilize sources that vet the authenticity of masks on behalf of customers such as Project N95. They provide masks that have been authenticated and can effectively protect you from COVID-19. The New York Times has also created a list of locations to buy vetted masks

To give yourself the best shot against COVID-19 and variants, mask up and mask right to stay safe.

Healthcare Ready has created resources that answer frequently asked questions regarding COVID-19, to learn more visit our COVID-19 Vaccines: Resources for the Community page. 

Figure 1: Shield Yourself from COVID-19

Figure 2: COVID-19 & Masks: How protective is the mask you’re wearing?