When the pandemic started two years ago, public health experts were keen on having everyone wear face coverings regardless of whether they were made of fabric to regulate and even prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Flash forward to 2022, and experts are now discouraging the public from using cloth face masks if they want to stay protected from SARS-CoV-2.

“We are encouraging people to change from the cloth mask to more of a surgical mask. We know a lot more about this virus now than we did a year ago,” SSM Health Dr. David Ottenbaker told Channel3000.com this week.

For Ottenbaker and many other scientists and medical experts, there is more than enough data to prove that cloth masks no longer cut it when it comes to providing protection against the newer strains of SARS-CoV-2, particularly the omicron variant.

Respirators That Filter Omicron

Researchers nationwide observed that cloth face coverings are significantly less effective against omicron than surgical masks. That is why they are encouraging the public to switch and choose surgical respirators over cloth masks.

Dr. Lindsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, explained to CBS Boston Monday that cloth masks did provide a certain level of protection against the earlier strains but are no match for the omicron variant.

“The typical cloth mask is about 50% effective, and while that was okay before, it doesn’t seem to be enough with omicron,” Marr told the news outlet before singling out the N95 mask as the face covering of choice amid the COVID-19 surge due to the omicron variant.

“We have special masks called respirators, such as N95 that offer much greater protection. They’re able to block 95 percent of particles that are either going out of your mouth or that you’re breathing in,” she said.

Marr also suggested other respirators that the public can use to help contain the situation, such as the KN95 and the KF94 masks. The former is the Chinese version of the U.S. N95 respirator, while the latter is the South Korean version of the face covering.

All three types of respirators can prevent the transmission of COVID-19 because they can filter out particles, such as the omicron variant. But Marr also pointed out that the fit of the respirators is critical in ensuring the best possible protection from omicron.

“What you need is to have a good seal, especially around your nose, and you want to make sure there aren’t gaps at the sides of your cheeks or at your chin,” she noted.

What The CDC Is Saying

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has continued to promote cloth masks as part of personal protective equipment the general masses can use amid the ongoing pandemic. The public health agency also recommends disposable face masks, such as surgical masks or medical procedure masks.

However, the CDC has also updated its online guidance to indicate that when supplies are available, people should choose the basic N95 respirators over cloth masks, especially when they are in high-risk places and areas, or if they are at a higher risk of suffering severe illness due to underlying medical conditions.

The agency also indicated on its website that specially labeled “surgical” N95 respirators should be prioritized for healthcare workers because they have a higher chance of being exposed to the novel coronavirus in their workplace.