Masking remains one of the most important safety practices. Before the new variants, Pierre says, a triple-layer cloth mask would be sufficient in filtering SARS-CoV-2, but the new variants may not behave the same way. For example, they could be more transmissible because infected people have more of the virus in their bodies or because the virus can travel farther than six feet.
Do I need to upgrade my mask?
N95 masks have the highest filtration capacity, which means they’ll allow fewer particles in. But they’re also harder to wear because they seal so tightly around the face, which can cause irritation and even pain after long wear. And while there’s not a severe N95 shortage as there was last spring, Pierre says some hospitals are still scrambling to shore up their supplies, so it’s best not to order N95s in bulk.
If you’re making quick trips outside where you can physically distance, Pierre says upgrading to an N95 might not be necessary. Supplies of surgical masks are more abundant and they’re generally more protective than a cloth mask. According to Pierre, they fit your face better and they generally filter more effectively than a triple-layer cloth mask.
On the Today show, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said double-masking likely offers added protection. But Pierre says wearing two masks makes comfort and breathing more difficult. If you decide to double-mask, she says a surgical mask worn underneath a cloth mask allows for easier breathing and adds durability to your surgical mask. “It’s important people remember the care of these masks won’t change,” she says. If you’re single-masking with a surgical mask, wear it once a day before discarding it, and always launder your cloth mask at least once a day.
The most important thing is to make sure you’re wearing your mask properly. “Whether you wear more than one mask or an N95, a mask worn improperly isn’t going to provide as much protection as a single mask worn properly,” says Hawkins. Always make sure your mask is snug to your face, that it fully covers your mouth and nose, and that you don’t pull it down to talk to people.
Where do I buy an N95, KN95, or surgical mask?
If you shop for PPE online, you’ll need to do some legwork to make sure you’re buying a quality, effective mask. “People need to do their research to ensure [they’re buying from] a reputable vendor that has a track record of putting out quality PPE,” Pierre says. The CDC has an extensive list of approved N95 masks, including this one from 3M and these RespoKare N95s. If you’re looking for surgical masks, there are quite a few options to be found, including this 25-pack on Amazon and this pack of 50, which also comes in black.