In the early days of the pandemic, face masks went from being exclusively reserved for healthcare workers to a blanket recommendation for the general population in a matter of months. Now, nearly two years later, our understanding of which types of face masks offer true protection has changed greatly—and has continually been revised as new waves and variants come along.
As the nation is dealing with a record-breaking winter surge, masking has become more essential than ever—and most notably, the kinds of masks needed to stave off the current variant have evolved. “As we learn more about the heightened transmissibility of Omicron, it’s become clear that improved mask filtration standards are needed to mitigate transmission,” Peter Rebeiro, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases and epidemiology professor, says. “That’s why it’s time to upgrade to N95 or KN95/KN94 standard masks instead of cloth masks.”
We know that masks help limit the spread of COVID-19 by protecting from small droplets or particles that you could cough, sneeze, or breathe out and potentially infect someone with. Research has shown that it's possible to spread COVID-19—especially the Omicron variant—even if you are asymptomatic or vaccinated.
“Being vaccinated doesn't mean you no longer need to mask,” Stanford University infectious disease professor Anne Liu says. “Vaccinated people can still carry virus even if they don't have symptoms and can still be contagious to others. Not only is a single person with Omicron able to infect more people than someone infected with prior variants, there are so many cases in most communities right now that the chances of being around high levels of airborne virus has increased.”
Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend that everyone ages two and above mask up in public indoor areas with “substantial or high transmission,” as well as in “crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.”
Masks play another important role, too: They remind us of the time we’re living and traveling in. “Masks give us a physical barrier that says something is different,” explains Neysa P. Ernst, nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. They serve as an important reminder when we leave our homes that we still need to put other protective efforts—social distancing and hand-washing, for example—into practice, despite any fatigue that has set in over the last few years.
“Many people who got vaccinated have this feeling that they're superhuman, and that they don't need to do anything anymore,” The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s infectious disease professor David Freedman says. While he adds “that was kind of true in the spring,” new variants have changed the game.
Whether you're going for a walk down the block, to visit a nearby national park, or are boarding a plane, here's everything you need to know about masking up, from what types of masks work best to where to buy them.