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Up your mask game for the new year, expert says

A surgical mask provides the best protection against omicron

By Public Health-Seattle & King County

Ditch the cloth face masks, some experts say, citing omicron’s high infection rate.

Here’s a New Year resolution worth making: Ditch the cloth masks, says a UW Medicine infectious disease expert.

“I stopped wearing cloth masks months ago,” said Dr. John Lynch, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center’s medical director for infection prevention and control. “Just to be clear, I think you should toss out your (cloth) masks or maybe hang them up as decorations.”

Instead, use respirators (like N95s), surgical masks, or masks with multiple layers, and make sure they fit well, Lynch said. “The fit is very important here and we want masks to fit against the faces,” he said.

The N95s are the gold standard, but they can be uncomfortable to wear every day. Lynch recommends that people wear a mask that they won’t remove often while in indoor spaces or crowds.

He identified useful mask information posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health favors surgical or KN95 masks over cloth masks, but if cloth masks are your only option, the department stresses that they should have two or more layers.

A Dec. 29 post by the American Medical Association suggested upgrading from a cloth mask to a surgical mask. “At minimum, though, consider double masking. This means wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask for a tighter fit. While double masking or a mask fitter may not offer as much protection as an N95, they are a big improvement compared to a cloth mask alone.”

All visitors to UW Medicine hospitals are handed surgical masks on entry to the hospitals, with the expectation is that they cat put it on over their existing mask for an added layer of protection.

Looking to 2022, Lynch sees signs of hope, attributing them to the significantly higher populations of fully vaccinated U.S. adults and children, and omicron’s seeming less severity than previous variants among vaccinated people.

He called the antiviral pills recently granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration a “huge leap” in the fight against COVID-19.

“The therapies are very promising in keeping people out of the hospital,” he said. “Maybe with the epidemiology of this new variant, access to treatment, testing and boosters, it may paint a picture of an exit from the uncontrolled pandemic to something that is more akin to what we deal with in influenza, or something similar.”


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