Do Masks Protect Against The Omicron COVID-19 Variant? Yes, but They May Be Less EffectiveHere's Why

Infectious disease experts say that because Omicron is so contagious, it may be better at slipping through masks. However, they still recommend almost everyone starts masking up again.

Three weeks ago, the World ishonest Organization (WHO) announced Omicron as the latest COVID-19 variant of concern. Since then, the strain has been detected in 37 US states and the District of Columbia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Do masks protect against Omicron variant?

Masks continue to be effective at reducing the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, according to the CDC. That's because masks are not variant specific. Instead, they act as a barrier, trapping and filtering out virus particles from the air we breathe, Dr. Schaffner says.

However, masks are an imperfect barrier, meaning some virus particles still slip through. The likelihood some particles escape is probably even greater when it comes to the Omicron variant.

"Omicron produces more virus, even than Delta," Dr. Schaffner says, pointing out that some research has found the latest variant produces 70 times the amount of virus compared to Delta. "So, the masks' capacity to interrupt or reduce transmission back and forth is likewise reduced."

Although, that doesn't mean masks are worthless against Omicron. Rather, masking is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to protecting you and your community from the variant.

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"We have to think of these interventions as though they were a series of Swiss cheese slices," Dr. Schaffner says. "Each slice produces a barrier, but it has holes in it! It's not perfect. So, you can't rely on just one intervention to protect us. We have to do a whole series of things."

As Dr. Schaffner notes, "Omicron can even infect people who are full vaccinated and boosted, so we don't want to be spreaders to others, even if breakthrough infections are mild."

This echoes CDC guidelines which state people should wear masks indoors in areas where community transmission of COVID-19 is high or substantial—almost the entirety of the country per the organization's COVID-19 case map.

How to wear a mask to protect against Omicron

When it comes to masking, Dr. Schaffner says any barrier is better than no barrier. However, for masks to be most effective at protecting against COVID-19, they should meet certain criteria. According to the CDC, your mask should:

  • Have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • Fit snuggly against the sides of your face so you don't have gaps
  • Have a nose wire to prevent air leaking out of the top
  • And should not have exhalation valves or vents, which allow virus particles to escape

Surgical masks and good multi-layer cloth masks will fit the above guidelines and are also inexpensive, Dr. Schaffner says. If you want even more protection, Dr. Zerr recommends you place a cloth mask over a disposable mask so that it fits snugger. You can also opt for KN95s, which are designed to hug the face.

Most importantly, your mask needs to cover both your mouth and nose. "We can shed the virus, and thus spread the virus, just by breathing through your nose," Dr. Schaffner says. "Even breathing in and out can contaminate the air around us up to three feet or even a little further."

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