Your cloth mask is not good enough protection against Omicron, according to an expert — here’s why

Child cloth mask
  • It’s important to mask up in the face of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
  • Cloth masks don’t offer adequate protection, so opt for an approved medical-grade mask instead.
  • Beware of counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks blacklisted by the CDC.

Cloth masks won’t do much in the fight against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, CNN’s medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said Monday.

Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve learned that not all masks are created equal. A face mask’s ability to block the spread of viral particles depends on how well it fits your face, as well as the number and material of its layers.

“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” Wen, a medical analyst for CNN, told the network on Monday. “Wear a high-quality mask, at least a three-ply surgical mask.”

While cloth masks may have seemed like a good idea in 2020, they’re not particularly useful in areas of high viral transmission, studies have found. One mid-pandemic review concluded that cloth masks may be beneficial for preventing transmission in low-risk, public settings; however, they offer limited protection in healthcare settings.

Given that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants and is now the dominant variant in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should take greater precautions to avoid the coronavirus. That means masking up smarter, Wen said.

Beware of counterfeit medical masks

Genuine, lab-tested N95 masks — or their Chinese and Korean counterparts (KN95 and KF94, respectively) — are the most effective masks for filtering viral particles. The number indicates that the masks filter about 95% of aerosol-sized particles.

In comparison, a surgical mask rated ASTM level 2 or 3 can filter out at least 50% of exhaled droplets that may carry the coronavirus. The downfall of surgical masks is that they don’t fit all face sizes, but adding a cloth mask or mask brace on top of a medical-grade mask can combine the benefits of good fit and filtration.

N95s and other medical masks are preferable to cloth masks because they’ve been tested to meet a certain standard of protection. Keep in mind that counterfeit masks do not meet that standard. The CDC has a running list of common counterfeit respirators that have not been approved in the US.

Project N95, a national nonprofit, has compiled a list of various approved masks and PPE that can be purchased online.

Mask up at crowded outdoor events

Wen also addressed New York City’s New Year’s Eve plans on CNN Monday. She said she thinks the annual ball drop should not be canceled in wake of the Omicron wave. Last year, the event was mostly replaced with a virtual celebration.

“We should be keeping the events that are safe and also the events that have fun for people too,” Wen said. “We can’t be canceling everything, especially if we’re going to be living with COVID for the foreseeable future.”

Given that the event will be held outdoors and requires proof of vaccination, it’s possible to attend safely. Wen reminded people to mask up even if they’re vaccinated and boosted, since a lot of people will be packed into Times Square. Just make sure to choose the right kind of mask.