In her weekly media briefing, BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she wears a well-fitted, three-layer cloth mask in most places and a surgical mask in medical settings.
But with the rise of the more permeable Omicron variant, Henry is being urged and encouraged to switch to N95 masks.
Anna Volk, a Vancouver family physician, says that N95 and N95 equivalent masks have two main advantages over cloth and surgical masks: better fit and better filtration.
“The materials used for the N95 and N95 counterparts are special, they are different,” Volk said. “They have an electrostatic charge that actually traps the particles they’re meant to filter. They have that extra superpower, so to speak, that cloth masks just don’t have.”
Canada’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, wore an N95 mask to her booster appointment on Monday, and tweeted that she has “upped her mask game” during Omicron.
With many infectious diseases now expected to recommend N95 masks around the world, Volk would like to see Henry on board.
“To hear from Dr. Henry that a cloth mask is enough, it sends a mixed message. When you have mixed messages, it is very confusing to the general public,” said Volk.
Burnaby medical supply company Vitacore manufactures 6,000,000 N95 and N95 equivalent masks per month. While its primary focus is supplying healthcare settings, its retail products have become a hot commodity.
“So obviously we’ve seen an uptick in demand there,” said Vitacore president Mikhail Moore. “In our retail side facing our customer, we have seen almost 30x growth in the last one month.”
With the public now screaming for N95 masks, Moore is shocked whether Henry is still wearing a cloth or surgical one.
“I think right now BC isn’t really up with the mountain of research that’s been going on over the years to say there’s a lot of benefits to being in the community, and for us to use a cloth mask or one.” There isn’t much benefit for surgical masks compared to N95,” Moore said.
Volk believes that vaccinations and COVID-19 tests such as N95 masks should be available to the public free of charge. There’s no sign that might be anytime soon, so she recommends those who can afford the $2-$3 per mask cost should make the switch now.
“If you look at the cloth mask, it is like a face dressing. They don’t protect against omicrons,” she said. But Volk acknowledged that N95s can be difficult to find online and in stores.
Vitacore says it’s trying to keep up. “Of course they’re flying off the shelves pretty quickly,” Moore said. “It’s about scaling up to meet that demand.”