What Kind of Mask Should I Wear?
By Kathy Ferguson, RN, Parish Nurse
Bethel has been requiring masks for several months. The City of Rochester has issued a mask mandate that continues through February 7. Why did the City issue a mask mandate at this time? According to data from the CDC, cases in Olmsted County have recently increased by over 200%! As of January 17, the percent positive of tested cases is around 29%. The goal is to have that percentage less than 5%. We are in a surge of COVID-19 thanks to the Omicron variant. This surge came on very quickly and experts are hopeful that it will decline just as quickly in a few weeks. You may have heard the recent statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about what masks we should be wearing. This article provides basic information about which mask is the best for controlling the spread of COVID. All information here is from the CDC and more detailed information can be found on their website https://www.cdc.gov/
The Best Choice
N95 Respirators (Masks)
N95 respirators are tightly fitting masks that cover your mouth and nose can filter up to 95% of air droplets and particles, according to the CDC. The N95s that you should look for are those approved by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). How do you know if you have a NIOSH Approved N95? You will see NIOSH stamped on the mask, as well as an approval number and other information. These masks are relatively expensive. Most start at about $2.00 a mask and go up from there. Compare that to 3-ply surgical masks which are usually about 50¢ or less per mask. The good news is that N95s can be re-used for up to 8 days or 40 hours. I have recently purchased a box of 10 for a little over $20. These should last me 10 weeks.
KN95 Masks (Buyer Beware)
Both N95 masks and KN95 masks are rated to filter out 95% of very small particles. N95 respirators are approved in the United States and KN95s are approved using the Chinese standards for these devices. Unfortunately, there have been quality issues and counterfeiting with some of the KN95 masks sent to the United States. According to the CDC, roughly 60% of KN95 respirators NIOSH evaluated during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 didn’t meet the requirements they were intended to meet. KN95 masks also run about $2.00+ per mask. Before you buy, check out the NIOSH list of approved masks here.
The Next Best Thing
Combination of 3-ply surgical mask plus a cloth mask
This option involves placing a well-fitting cloth mask on top of a surgical mask. The combination of the two provides better protection than using either of these individually. I have taken to using this lately since I already have cloth masks and my personal supply of surgical masks.
A Reasonable Choice
Three-ply surgical mask
These may be appropriate to wear in most settings. These are the masks that we distribute at Bethel. Mayo Clinic is also distributing these to patients. One of the problems with these is that there is air leakage around the nose and the cheeks and so a good fit can be difficult. Always wear a surgical mask with an adjustable nosepiece. You may also find that knotting the ear strings results in a better fit.
Not a Recommended Choice
Cloth face masks
If you are like me, you have been wearing cloth face masks throughout the pandemic. You may even have cloth face masks that match the season or coordinate with your clothing. These masks may have a catchy slogan or sparkles. These masks are fun and for many of us they let us find a little joy while wearing a mask for these many months. The problem is that there is absolutely no way to ensure quality amongst cloth masks. Some are one layer, some two layers, some have a pocket to insert an extra filter. I would not go so far as to support what Dr. Lena Wen says, that cloth face masks are merely a face decoration. I think in some cases they are better than nothing. I am sorry to say it is probably time to ditch the cloth face masks—at least wearing them alone (see “The Next Best Thing” above). If you choose to wear a cloth mask, aim for one that is three layers thick.
Do Not Wear These
Single-layer gaiters, bandanas, scarves, masks with valves, or a face shield alone
In experiments, bandanas, handkerchiefs, fleece balaclavas (cold-weather gear that covers the entire face except for the eyes), and neck gaiters (tubes of performance fabric typically used for running outdoors), offered very little protection.
Masks with valves or vents allow the virus to escape and will not protect others from you if you have a COVID-19 infection.
Since face shields alone do not fit well over the nose, mouth, and chin, viruses can escape. If you want to wear a face shield, you should also wear a surgical mask.
To stay on top of COVID, a multi-pronged approach must be adhered to. Just masks won’t do it. Just vaccines won’t do it. These are the things you can do to bring our current surge of COVID-19 under control:
- Get vaccinated
- Get tested if you are sick or have been exposed to COVID
- Stay home if you are sick
- Follow the CDC guidelines for quarantine and isolation https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html
- Wear an appropriate mask correctly when indoors and in crowded outdoor settings
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently
- Cover your cough or sneeze
- Only do those things that are low risk for transmission of COVID and that you feel comfortable doing given your age and health status
Be well. Wear a mask.