N95 face masks provide the best Omicron protection

Nadia Moharib 8 minute read February 4, 2022

As Omicron continues to circulate, many Canadians are investing in protection offered by N95 masks. Getty Images

We do not have a crystal ball. And we are not health experts. But we are pleased to see that in many provinces, pandemic-related restrictions are lifting. 

No one has declared this horrible chapter in history as done but those developments are certainly spreading optimism among many Canadians. 

Couching comments with caution

The nation’s top health official, Dr. Theresa Tam,  said this country has “moved past the worst of the Omicron variant of coronavirus … but Canadians still need to be prudent as hospitalizations (continue) to rise.” It’s something. And it’s all very complicated.

We’re not here to dissect the latest on the pandemic and for now face masks are not on the chopping block.

So, we will continue to watch what public health officials are suggesting Canadians do to safeguard themselves and others — hoping that one day soon we can ditch the masks and use this space to share details about our favourite shade of lipstick, visible for the whole world to see. 

Until then, N95 masks have been widely recommended by experts as the best protection against the highly-contagious Omicron variant.

Where to buy N95 or KN95 masks online right now

Lowes Canada Uniair N95 Respirator | 20-pack ($42.99) 

Ace Hardware 3M N95 Lawn and Garden Disposable Respirator White 2 pk ($4.99)

Vida 10-pack NIOSH and FDA Authorized N95 Mask ($37.80) They also have children’s K95 masks

Home Depot WorkVidahorse N95 mask ($13.98 each)

How’s my face mask look? More importantly, does it work as the world continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a question many Canadians are asking these days as they look to get equipped with one of the key recommendations by public health experts to avoid getting or sharing the virus. 

Because the Omicron variant, which is stalking the world right now, is highly contagious, experts say ensuring you have a good mask with a proper fit is more important than ever. 

No doubt, you’ve heard people say, “everyone’s gonna get this variant,” a common phrase trotted out these days. But if you’re among those wanting to make every effort to avoid it, now is not the time to ease up on efforts to keep yourself and the community safe. Quite the opposite. 

Learn where to order facemasks.

An environmental health expert weighs in

Cloth masks aren’t the best, medical masks are better and N95 or KN95 are what more and more experts are recommending as the best option while Omicron continues to circulate. 

Professor Michael Brauer who works in environmental health in the UBC School of Population and Public Health says the highly contagious nature of the latest incarnation of the virus requires conscientious masking. 

For him, that means opting for an N95 or KN95 mask. 

It’s a position echoed by many infectious disease specialists who prefer those types of masks for protection in public indoor spaces, especially hospitals, long-term care facilities and schools. 

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is poised to update its mask guidance to recommend people choose an N95 or KN95 given their superior protection through better filtration to thwart transmission of the airborne virus.

With Omicron right now, I wouldn’t recommend anything besides the highest quality N95 or KN95,” says Brauer. “That’s really what you need because it’s just so easily transmitted.”

Pre-Omicron, the hierarchy in terms of protection offered by masks saw surgical ones (those blue, paper variety,) superior to cloth and the N95 on top spot in terms of safeguarding against the virus’ spread.

A cloth mask will block about 70 per cent of what you are breathing out, Brauer says, while a medical mask will offer a little more protection. But, assuming it’s well-sealed, an N95 can block out up to 95 per cent of potential virus transmission.

“An N95 will block out essentially everything,” he says. 

Although he says an N95 is slightly better than a KN95, the latter is much easier to get, slightly more comfortable to wear and still a good option.

How to wear your mask correctly

There’s not much to be gained from getting even the best mask if you don’t wear it correctly, which means ensuring it provides a tight seal, something which can be a challenge with children.

“If there is any gap, the air is going right through the gap,” Brauer says. “You really want to make sure that it seals as well as possible. When it seals well it is not gonna be comfortable.”

Sweating can affect the fit and beards, which can prevent a proper seal from forming, do not pair well with proper masking.

“With beards, or even if you are not clean-shaven, you are decreasing that seal. It’s really important to get a good seal with a beard,” he says.

Is your mask working for you? Don’t guess, do this simple test (albeit not fool-proof but a good indicator,) to check it out. 

“Put your mask on and blow out as hard as you can. If you blink, that is air coming up through the top of the mask,” Brauer says. “If you don’t blink you have a good seal.”

He says a good mask will prevent you from breathing out into shared spaces, essentially protecting others. 

Brauer says N95 masks can be reused if you treat them with care which includes not getting them wet. 

“I can easily get two weeks out of one,” he says. “They can be more than single-use if you treat it carefully. Some people will put it in a plastic bag when they are not using them.” “If it becomes difficult to breathe, you want to replace them.”

Of course, the sage advice of regular handwashing still stands but in terms of combatting COVID, he says it’s what you breathe that’s important.

And while those pretty cloth, homemade creations might have served you well as previous COVID-19 variants circulated, and the medical mask protects you even more, right now your best bet is to upgrade.

That’s not to say the popular, environmentally-friendly, reusable cloth masks won’t make a comeback, just that they are not currently the preferable option, Brauer says. 

He says cloth masks are good to guard against the flu, which is expected to make its annual comeback later this year, and other respiratory illnesses. 

And the triple-layer masks some people wear work well to block out what you are exhaling, potentially into other people’s breathing space, but are not protecting you, he says.

“So, if you are concerned about what you are breathing in, you are not doing yourself a lot of good,” he says.

Tam, Canada’s top doctor, advised Canadians to trade their cloth masks for three-ply medical masks late last year — suggesting they opt for N95s if possible.

Recently, Canadian public health officials stated respirators like N95s and KN95 masks provide the best level of mask protection. They also stated non-medical masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 if;

  • They are worn with a proper fit 
  • Have multiple layers (including at least two layers of breathable, tightly-woven fabric like cotton and an effective middle filter layer)

Of course, the virus is not only easily spread but invisible to the naked eye making it that much more of a challenge to protect against or, potentially, ‘see’ as a threat.

Outdoors is the safer place to gather with others because the fresh air dilutes any virus and, of course, a strong wind will blow it away. 

“All of this is complete common sense,” Brauer says. “If you are inside and closer, you are more likely to breathe out and you can breathe it in. It is nothing more complicated than that. I think the thing that is hard for people to visualize is that they don’t see anything. But there are actually millions of things in the air all the time.”

Indoors, the virus is so small and light it can remain in the air for some time where it will potentially infect someone who breathes it in.

“The only thing that changes is fresh air coming in. If you open up a window or several windows, you can replace all the air in that house with fresh air in like a half hour,” Brauer says.

Your best friend? Fresh air and an air filter, either on your furnace or a purifier.

HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters on the furnace or air purifiers are quite effective at removing viral particles in the air. 

Brauer recommends a purifier be put in a room where people are spending most of their time, like a bedroom or den. While many come with all sorts of bells and whistles, he says you just need to ensure it is the appropriate purifier for the space you want to run it in and has a HEPA filter. Ensure you keep the room sealed up allowing the purifier to push out virus-free air. 

“Don’t open the windows,” Brauer says. “You are asking for devices to clean all the air in the world.”

In the car: “Wear your masks, for sure, and open the window. Make sure the heat is not on recirculation but drawing in fresh air.”

Where does Brauer mask up? “Anytime I am indoors or on public transit. I tend not to wear them when I am outdoors.”

A word on breaking in an N95 mask? Get used to it; “I can wear one for about two hours and they get pretty uncomfortable. Warmer weather adds to discomfort. This is not something you want to wear 24/7 but when you have to.”

For more COVID-19 information, go to; Best sites to order face masks for kids 2022 and The latest COVID-19 variant: protecting against it or managing it at home.

 

Shopping Essentials is a new category that features highly-researched products, new and exciting launches or behind-the-scenes info — learn more.  All prices are accurate on the day of publication.

 

NMoharib@postmedia.com

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