Do masks protect against new COVID-19 variants like omicron?

Cloth vs. surgical vs. N95 mask
Posted at 4:21 PM, Dec 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-21 12:31:45-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- With California's indoor mask mandate in place, face coverings will continue to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

But do the masks we own protect us against new variants like delta and omicron? Experts say use higher-grade masks for better protection against new and future variants.

A University of Minnesota study looked at how long it takes a person to be infected by COVID-19 according to the type of mask they were wearing around an infected person.

For example, if the infected person is maskless and you have on a cloth mask, the study found that you had about 20 minutes before you were infected. You had 30 minutes if you were wearing a surgical mask and two and a half hours if you were wearing a fit-tested N95 or equivalent, like a KF94 or KN95.

Your protection time increased if the person was also masked. The study suggested that the maximum protection of 25 hours was achieved when you and the person both wore a fit-tested N95 or equivalent.

"If you're going to be in an indoor place for a while with other people, then upping the game to a KN90 or an N95 is really the way to go," Infectious Disease Specialist at Family Health Centers of San Diego, Christian Ramers, MD, MPH said.

Ramers said that the caveat of this study is that it did not account for new variants.

"Now that we have omicron, which is two to five times more infectious than delta, we would take those numbers of protection and reduce them even further," Dr. Ramers said.

Unlike last winter, there is no significant PPE shortage. So people now have access to higher grade masks, which were initially intended for hospital settings. But if folks are still having difficulty finding them, Dr. Ramers says double-masking will work in a pinch.

"If you can't get your hands on a higher quality mask, then using a cloth and then a surgical is the way to go," Dr. Ramers said.

He says it will be less comfortable but will offer significantly more protection.

Dr. Ramers said, for the last two years, he has seen about 30 severely ill COVID-19 patients a week at his monoclonal anti-body infusion clinic. Every day he wears a fitted N95 mask and has never tested positive. He is also fully vaccinated.