On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that cloth masks are less effective than surgical or respirator masks in protecting against COVID-19.
The updated guidance reflects what many public health experts have been highlighting with the recent surge in cases caused by the highly contagious omicron variant.
“Loose fabric products provide the least protection, thin fabric multi-layer products provide more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95 masks provide even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95) provide the highest level of protection,” according to new guidance published on Friday.
But the CDC didn’t go as far as to say that cloth masks are inadequate against this strain of the virus – which some public health experts say is obvious given the speed of transmission. Instead, the new guidance says that respirator masks such as N95 or KN95 masks “may be considered in certain situations and by some people when more effective protection is needed or desired.” The CDC said this could include scenarios involving infected patients or people with underlying medical conditions, or where social distancing is not possible.
This is a change from the previous period of the pandemic, when the CDC, concerned about the lack of protective equipment, urged people not to waste such respirators on healthcare workers.
N95 and KN95 masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles, and recent evidence shows they can protect wearers from micromicron-infected people without masks for up to 2.5 minutes compared to 20-30 minutes of protection from cloth or surgical masks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is leading the effort to send three free N95 masks to every American in light of this data.
“It’s an absolute scandal that in the richest country in the history of the world, high-quality masks aren’t as readily available to frontline workers, healthcare workers, and all Americans,” Sanders said on Wednesday, introducing the Masks for All Act. .
Rep. Ro Hanna (D-CA), who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, made a similar call for legislation that would provide $5 billion for the domestic production, purchase and distribution of N95 masks.
“If we can afford the $778 billion defense budget, we can afford to ship N95 masks to every American to keep people safe amid the surge in Omicron infections,” he wrote in a statement.