WASHINGTON - Officials across the U.S. are again weighing how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections soar and the American public grows weary of pandemic-related restrictions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was expected to recommend people opt for the highly-protective N95 or KN95 masks over cloth masks to ward off the highly-contagious omicron variant.
The expected changes come as the federal government assesses the supply of medical-grade respirator face coverings, such as N95 or KN95 masks.
During a briefing Wednesday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said officials were "strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans," noting the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks.
While the guidance on masks still remains under consideration, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC says any mask is better than none.
"I’ll just add that CDC continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask. And we do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that recommendation is not going to change," Walensky said at the Wednesday briefing.
"The best mask’ is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings," Wallensky added.
Some states are making their own mask policies — some stricter than others.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, answers questions during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and new emerging variants on Jan
On Monday, officials in Wyoming’s capital city voted to end a mask mandate for students and teachers that had been in place since September. The Cheyenne school district also reduced COVID-19 isolation requirements, voting to require that only people with symptoms and positive tests — not just those exposed — need to stay home for five days and mask for five days thereafter.
The University of Missouri’s governing board on Tuesday rejected the university system president's request to temporarily require masks on the Columbia campus, as well as a mandate specific to classrooms and labs.
Meanwhile, last week, the University of Arizona announced it would require a medical-grade mask in indoor spaces where social distancing is not possible. The school said on its website that it no longer considers cloth masks to be adequate, although a cloth mask can be worn over a medical-grade mask to improve fit and increase protection.
A new indoor mask mandate takes effect Wednesday in New Orleans ahead of the Mardi Gras season. Louisiana’s statewide coronavirus daily hospitalization numbers have increased sevenfold in three weeks — a spike that has strained hospitals, where emergency room waits are sometimes as long as 12 hours, according to the city’s health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno.
Health officials in Omaha, Nebraska, announced a temporary mask mandate on Tuesday, but the state has threatened to sue if the rule is imposed as planned. Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said a majority of the council supported the move.
As the nation’s medical infrastructure continues to be inundated with COVID-19 cases amid the spread of the omicron variant, healthcare officials say it’s extremely critical to mask up now more than ever.
Despite the CDC maintaining that any mask is better than no mask, some health experts argue the material matters.
What’s the best type of mask design?
In 2020, researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center evaluated approximately 400 masks made by community volunteers in order to find which, if any, masks worked as well as N95 respirators or any other medical-grade surgical masks.
According to researchers, the best design was that of a double-layer mask made of heavyweight "quilter’s cotton," consisting of a thread count of 180 or more. A double-layer mask with a simple cotton outer layer and inner layer of flannel also performed well.
The inferior masks consisted of single-layer or double-layer designs made of lightweight cotton.
"As important as this information is for hospitals, it is also important for people who want to make masks for their own use," said
Scott Segal, M.D., chair of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist. "We don’t want people to think that just any piece of cloth is good enough and have a false sense of security."
What are the benefits and challenges of N95, KN95 masks?
According to the CDC, N95 masks filter 95% of airborne particles and have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The masks also seal tightly to the face when fitted properly. However, N95 respirators cannot be washed. They need to be discarded when they are dirty, damaged or difficult to breathe through. The N95 respirators tend to be more expensive than masks.
KN95 masks are respirators that meet international standards. However, the CDC warns that about 60% of KN95 respirators in the U.S. are counterfeit and do not meet NIOSH requirements.
The CDC previously recommended N95 masks only for health care workers, advising people instead to wear cloth masks that have two (or more) layers of fabric that completely cover the face and mouth, fit ‘snugly’ against the sides of the face (without any gaps) that also has a nose wire to prevent air leaking from the top of the mask.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press and Chris Williams contributed.