Why you should upgrade your mask before your next trip
While we’re still learning about the omicron variant and its impact, we know it’s fueling a surge of positive cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., which saw more than 1 million new cases on Jan. 3 alone.
With omicron’s spread, health experts say that your cloth mask may not be as effective in avoiding the coronavirus and suggest using a higher-quality option, such as an N95 mask. A University of Miami professor told CBS New York that “this is not the time to be wearing a cloth mask.” A Virginia Tech researcher who studies viruses told NPR that cloth masks “are not going to cut it” against the omicron variant.
If you have travel planned in the next few months, you may feel better protected with a higher-quality mask. Here’s why it’s time to upgrade your mask collection before your next trip.
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Why you need to upgrade your mask
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends reserving surgical N95 masks for healthcare workers. But health experts say people should invest in more high-quality masks, such as N95 or KN95s instead of regular cloth masks.
Dr. Jenny Yu, the senior manager of medical integrity at Healthline Media (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), said the guidance changed in light of new information about the omicron variant, which is spreading like wildfire across the U.S. and globally.
“The omicron variant is much more transmissible,” Dr. Yu told TPG. “Its ability to infect our body is much higher. As a result, the changes suggest an N95 mask or equivalent in high-risk places. These masks are multilayered with the ability to block 95% of minuscule molecules.”
What’s the difference between an N95 and a KN95 mask?
N95 mask. KN95 mask. KF94 mask. If you’ve been on the hunt for a higher-quality face mask, you may have been overwhelmed – and confused – by the options. According to Dr. Yu, the letters in front of the mask name are based on country standards, with “N” being the U.S. standard and “KN” and "KF" being the Chinese and Korean standards, respectively.
“However, when you look at the relevant information for how it blocks tiny molecules, such as viruses, it does the same work,” Dr. Yu says. “A tiny detail of pressure resistance between the two masks is negligible.”
If you can’t find an N95 mask, it is acceptable to purchase equivalents such as KN95 or KF94.
“The message is: medical masks that are multilayered, made with materials that can block viral particles and particularly a better fit is the way to go,” says Dr. Yu.
Make sure you have the right mask for travel
Given the new variant, the federal mask mandate likely isn’t going anywhere soon. Airlines and airports still require them while traveling, and they’re mandatory on public transportation in the U.S. However, before you head to the airport or train station, you’ll want to make sure you have the correct mask for travel.
According to the CDC order governing mask-wearing while traveling, face masks should cover the nose and mouth and cannot have slits, exhalation valves or punctures. That means masks with exhalation valves, such as these 3M masks typically used for household projects such as painting, aren’t permitted on flights.
Aside from making sure you’re wearing the correct mask before you fly, you’ll also want to ensure you purchase masks that fit your face correctly. Dr. Yu says masks should fit over your nasal bridge and wrap around the entire lower face and chin.
“The fit is as important as the type of mask,” she says.
How to find an N95 mask right now
Like COVID-19 tests, actually finding a high-quality mask can be tricky right now simply because of demand.
Sites like PacMedPro.com and ProjectN95.com sell masks that won’t leave your wallet drained, especially if you’re purchasing multiple packs for a family. A pack of five N95 masks from ProjectN95 starts at just $11, which breaks down to just over $2 per mask.
Amazon is also an option, but you’ll need to do your research to make sure you’re getting an authentic N95 mask, as there have been some reports of fake 3M masks in the past.
The alert site NowInStock (infamous with gamers trying to track elusive Playstation 5 restocks) is also an option if you’re looking for N95 masks. As I mentioned above, make sure you’re purchasing a mask without a respirator, and note that NowInStock typically won’t send an alert when masks are back in stock.
Finally, as some of these options are on the pricier side, you might be wondering if you can reuse an N95 mask. When resources were scarce in the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Yu says healthcare workers would reuse N95 masks by re-sterilization or using UV lightboxes for treatment.
Generally, she says, N95 or KN95 masks can be reused if the material isn’t visibly soiled or frayed. However, when you aren’t out and about, make sure to either hang your mask by the strap or place it into a clean brown paper bag.