Aug 17, 2021 - Health

It might be time for a mask upgrade

Illustration of a cloth mask over a surgical-style mask.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Experts warn it's time to invest in higher-quality masks with a tight fit in the wake of the Delta variant, especially among the unvaccinated like children and other vulnerable populations.

Why it matters: Much of the public health message has been to persuade people to wear any mask let alone which kind to buy. Mask quality hasn’t been explained well enough, Michael Osterholm said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.

  • "A cloth mask surely can give you some protection. But it's not the kind of protection that you'll get when you use a much more effective mask. We have not talked about that nearly enough," he said.

The big picture: Fashioning cloth masks at the beginning of the pandemic was better than no protection at the time while keeping N95s available for health care workers.

  • But now, with crowds becoming more prevalent, soft returns to the office and in-person school ahead, some health departments lately have asked their communities to check if their masks are still in good condition and to consider wearing an N95 or KN95 based on the exposure time and other high-risk scenarios.

What's happening: Demand for different mask varieties has soared over the past few weeks after COVID-19 cases surged due to Delta and mask guidance was reinstated regardless of vaccination status, per CBS News.

  • N95 and KN95 are the most effective, followed by surgical masks and then cloth masks that have a double layer.
  • N95s are not available for children and would not be comfortable for all-day wear, Tina Tan a pediatrician at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Axios. But they should be sent to school with a mask that has two or more layers.

But, but, but: Plenty of infectious disease experts say they care far more about whether a kid is wearing a mask or not, rather than what kind.

Be smart: The CDC has an online guide of approved N95 masks by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, as well as tips for spotting counterfeit ones. Non-profit Project N95 also provides links to reputable PPE sellers.

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