What masks should people be wearing in light of the Omicron variant?

What masks should people be wearing in light of the Omicron variant?
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Omicron variant is believed to be more transmissible than the previous strains of coronavirus which is leading some experts to recommend upgrading masks.

Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, says COVID-19 aerosols linger in the air, much like smoke.

As a result, many experts now recommend wearing N95 masks to help protect against the spread of COVID-19. These masks can either be difficult to find, or fairly expensive. CHEK News spoke with medical experts to find out what masks you can wear to best protect yourself.

Minimum standards

The Public Health Agency of Canada says no matter which mask you choose, it should meet a minimum criteria

The mask should fit well without gaps between the mask and your face. They should have at least two tightly woven layers, plus a third effective filter layer.

The agency also states that whichever mask you choose, it should not have exhalation valves. These valves do not filter the coronavirus, and therefore do not protect against COVID-19.

Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, retired emergency physician and member of Protect Our Province BC, says when choosing a mask, remember the three F’s: fit, filtration, function.

“You want to get as high filtration as you can to prevent the virus breathing in the viral particles,” Filiatrault says. And for fit she says the mask must be tight against your face without gaps. “If they’re open on the side or open up on top or they fog your glasses, that doesn’t work.”

In terms of function, Filiatrault says the mask should stay in place without needing to be adjusted once it’s being worn, and without it falling down while you speak.

N95 or alternatives

N95 or equivalent masks are the best choice due to their ability to filter, according to Filiatrault, and the fit the masks can achieve in forming a seal on your face.

When purchasing these masks, she says it is important to make sure they are legitimate as there have been poor quality masks being sold.

“You have to make sure they’re good quality because there have been knock offs,” she says.

Dr. Scott Lear, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University says one way to check if a mask is legitimate is to look for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certification.

“Sometimes knockoffs can use the NIOSH label as well,” Lear says. “So the CDC has a website where you can type in the product number to check.”

Surgical masks

Wearing surgical masks is the next best alternative, but Filiatrault says these masks often have an issue with fit.

“We call them ‘baggy blues’,” she says. “Because they’re open at the sides and leave gaps.”

Filiatrault says there are some ways to improve the fit of these masks so they work.

“One of the tricks that I tell people is that you can criss cross your straps around the ear,” she says. Crossing the straps brings the mask closer to the face and can make the masks fit more effectively.

READ MORE: British Columbia’s new COVID 19 restrictions to curb Omicron variant come into effect

Another option Masks4Canada, a group of experts who advocate for effective use of masks to combat the spread of COVID-19, recommends is wearing a mask-fitter or brace over the mask, which will hold the mask closer to your face.

Wearing a cloth mask overtop of your surgical mask can also improve the fit of surgical masks, according to Filiatrault and Masks4Canada.

Cloth masks

If cloth masks are the only ones available to you, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends a disposable third filter layer to be included in the mask.

The filter should be made of a filter-type fabric, like non-woven polypropylene.

Face shields

Since COVID is spread through the air, Filiatrault says face shields do not provide sufficient protection.

“A face shield on its own is useless,” she says. “They protect your eyes, but don’t block your breath.”

She says in healthcare settings they may be helpful as an additional layer, but in the community a face shield on its own does not provide enough protection.

Layers of protection

Choosing the right mask is important to help protect against the spread of COVID-19, but experts say it’s important to keep in mind that it is just one step to take.

Filiatrault says people should be getting vaccinated, not going indoors unless absolutely necessary, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding large gatherings.

She says if you have to go inside, for example if you’re going into a store, spend as little time as possible inside.

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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