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    Omicron and Masks - What You Need To Know

    Amy Lau, MSN, RN, CIC, Infection Preventionist 01/12/2022
    With the highly-contagious omicron variant spreading throughout our community, cases of COVID-19 are on the rise.  This has led to many questions about masks…
    • Which masks work best? 
    • What mask should I wear or should my child wear? 
    • When should we wear them?  
    The short answers are: Any mask that fits well and is worn properly is better than no mask.  And masks should be worn in any indoor setting that includes people outside your immediate household, and inside your home if someone in the household has COVID. Masking is not advised for anyone under age 2 or those with certain disabilities.

    Now, I’ll elaborate on some of these specific details around these questions and answers.

    Which masks work best?

    Facemasks are on a spectrum of protection. For example, the highest-filtration personal protective equipment is being used by our staff who are at the bedside of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. These professionals are either wearing a closed-system air purifying respirator system, or a carefully-fitted N95 mask, along with eye protection. N95 masks are multi-layered with very high levels of filtration.

    Elsewhere, in other patient care areas, some staff are wearing general (not custom-fit) N95 masks, which offer excellent filtration protection. Some employees are wearing hospital-grade procedure or surgical masks, which are three-ply and fit closely to the face (the close fit and multiple layers are key!).  All employees providing direct patient care are also wearing eye protection. 

    We also have employees who have no patient contact and are usually alone in their own offices who are able to wear well-fitting multi-layer cloth masks. While these masks don’t have the same filtration properties as other masks, all masks help lower the amount of viruses that escape from an infected person. The viruses are contained in droplets, so all masks help reduce the volume of virus in the air that can be inhaled by others.

    Because of current high COVID numbers, we want staff and patients to have the added protection of the tighter-weave surgical masks when interacting with each other.  If a patient enters any of our facilities wearing a fabric mask, we have surgical masks as an option for them to wear instead.  

    Which mask should I wear or should my child wear?

    I’ll refer to my earlier short answer:  Any mask that fits well and is worn properly is better than no mask.  

    In a school setting, combinations of various types of masks, worn consistently, have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 within classrooms. While a higher-filtering mask may ultimately be somewhat better, the key is that every person in the room wears a well-fitting mask over their nose and mouth.  

    Ultimately, there are two keys to making sure your mask works the best it can:
    • Make sure the mask fits snugly against your face, on the top, bottom and sides.  Gaps can let respiratory droplets come in and leak out.
    • Chose a mask with layers that keeps your exhaled droplets in, and others’ out.  Multiple layers will block more respiratory droplets that you would inhale from others, as well as prevent them from going through your mask if you are sick.

    Remember that the goal of masking is to reduce the amount of virus-containing respiratory particles in the air.  Even if a mask can’t stop 100% of particles, reducing the overall volume of virus can help reduce infections, as well as severity of infection.  

    When should we wear them?

    At this time, because of the incredibly-contagious nature of omicron, and how widespread it is in our community, state and country, people should wear masks in all indoor settings that include people outside their immediate household.

    Additionally, if someone in a household is sick (either with COVID, or pending test results), masking is recommended as well to reduce the spread within the household, especially when the sick person can’t completely isolate.  I will also note that this is a good idea when someone has the flu as well.  

    We hope this omicron surge will be over soon, as people continue to become quite sick and our hospitals are very full.  One way to help it end sooner is to wear a mask as recommended in this article.  
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