Do Seniors Need A Mask Upgrade Against Omicron?

The Omicron variant is filling hospitals, causing long testing lines, and triggering new mask mandates. Since March 2020, mask requirements and preferred styles have shifted along with surges, vaccine campaigns and new variants. The highly infectious and fast-spreading Omicron is prompting health officials to recommend retiring the cloth and non-medical disposable masks you’ve been wearing. Respirator masks (N95, N99, N100) filter higher percentages of particles when worn properly and offer more protection against the Omicron variant. Seniors and caregivers in San Diego should consider upgrading their masks in the face of Omicron.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last updated its mask information web page on September 23, 2021, but much has changed since then. Their Covid-19 safety guidelines suggested that a wide variety of masks, including cloth and disposable, would protect against the transmission of Covid-19 as long as the mask fit snugly and covered the nose and mouth. Outside of hospital or health-care settings, most mask-wearing Americans chose the more comfortable and convenient cloth or disposable options. Until the advent of the Omicron variant, state and federal health officials have focused on urging us to wear any mask at all. Health officials report that cloth and surgical / disposable masks are not as effective against Omicron as the respirator masks are. The CDC hasn’t issued a formal recommendation to switch to a higher-grade mask yet, but it’s expected soon. Why should those giving and receiving in home health care in San Diego swap their comfortable and stylish cloth masks for a N95 respirator mask?

Cloth masks offer varying levels of protection against virus droplets, depending on the material and number of plies (or layers) and how well it fits around the mouth and nose. But no matter how thick or well-fitting, Omicron is passing through cloth masks easily. USA Today reported last week that “[A] cloth face mask isn’t protecting you against the coronavirus variant omicron … As common as cloth face masks have become, health experts say, they do little to prevent tiny virus particles from getting into your nose or mouth and aren’t effective against the new variant.”

Approved N95 masks can block much smaller aerosols than cloth masks (potentially containing the airborne virus) and filter out 95% of airborne particles. (The 95 indicates a 95% effective rate, and 99 indicates a 99% effective rate.) A N95 mask, according to approved manufacturer Honeywell, filters all particles above .3 microns in size, so the .12 micron-sized coronavirus can’t pass through.

According to the CDC, “NIOSH approves many types of filtering facepiece respirators. The most widely available are N95, but other types (N99, N100, P95, P99, P100, R95, R99, and R100) offer the same or better protection as an N95.” When shopping for masks, be aware that alternatives like KN95 and KF94 masks, manufactured in China and Korea respectively, don’t meet NIOSH standards, and counterfeit N95’s don’t either. Look for the NIOSH approval or confirm the manufacturer is on the NIOSH list.

The CDC’s website advises that N95s:

  • “Filter up to 95% of particles in the air when approved by NIOSH and proper fit can be achieved
  • Seal tightly to the face when fitted properly
  • Since N95 respirators form a seal to the face, they may feel harder to breathe through than a cloth mask
  • N95 respirators cannot be washed. They need to be discarded when they are dirty, damaged, or difficult to breathe through
  • N95 respirators tend to be more expensive than masks
  • It’s important to wear an N95 the right way:
    • “a poorly fitting or improperly worn respirator or mask may reduce its intended benefit.
    • NIOSH and OSHA have developed a video demonstrating how to perform a user seal check and how to properly put on (don) and take off (doff) a respirator, as well as a NIOSH factsheet.”

Many N95 genuine and approved respirator masks are available online and in stores now which is an improvement over the dire situation we faced in early 2020. Seniors, loved ones and caregivers should all take a moment to evaluate their mask supply and strategy as Omicron continues to surge in San Diego.