AUSTIN (KXAN) — Medical experts urge people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot to best protect themselves against the more easily spread omicron variant, but they also stress the importance of wearing the right mask during this latest surge.
A simple cloth mask — no matter how cute the fabric is — will not cut it anymore, according to Dr. Erica Swegler of Austin. However, the family physician with Village Medical said a cloth mask with a filter added into it would be better if there are no other options available to someone.
Dr. Swegler said a cloth mask became more obsolete in terms of protecting someone well before omicron emerged in Central Texas and the U.S.
“The delta variant somehow had been able to evade that [cloth mask] barrier quite nicely, and it is just not sufficient,” Dr. Swegler said. “Somehow, [the virus] is able to penetrate through a plain cloth mask.”
She instead shared a list of the three types of masks people should seek out and wear right now to fight against omicron, starting with the most protective option.
Dr. Swegler said the N95 mask is her top pick to protect people from the delta and omicron variants. She called it the “absolute best mask,” because its two straps go around the head and provide a very tight fit to the face.
“The key is you want something that fits tight against your face and doesn’t leave gaps,” she said.
However, she noted an N95 mask could be more expensive and harder for people to find, so the next best option would be the KN95.
The KN95 mask differs from the N95 in that its straps loop just around the ears, though Dr. Swegler pointed out it still sits snugly on the face.
“If you were on an airplane perhaps, I would absolutely recommend a KN95, which has a nosepiece that can really come down over the nose and fits very well,” she explained.
Along with their fit on someone’s face, Dr. Swegler said the material the KN95 and N95 are made from as well as the filtration built into them make them the most recommended masking options.
“The N95 is absolutely the best; the KN95 second best,” she said, “and then a surgical mask, which is relatively inexpensive and much more easily obtainable, is the the next best choice.”
Disposable surgical mask
Though they’re not ranked as highly on her list, Dr. Swegler said disposable surgical masks remain a much more preferred option over a simple cloth mask to protect people now against COVID-19.
“It’s really going back to what we call the Swiss cheese model,” she said. “We need multiple barriers in place, which includes not only the vaccine first and foremost, but the appropriate mask and wearing it consistently over your nose, your mouth — not as a chin strap or anything like that. Plus, doing proper distancing and really limiting indoor exposure at this point to small groups, especially if you are unclear of everyone’s vaccination status.”
Dr. Radha Mahale, a family doctor at Baylor Scott & White Health, agreed with the above masking recommendations, pointing out why it’s especially important to wear one to deal with this most current strain.
“It is shown that omicron is mostly in the nasal passages and not so much in the lower respiratory system, so that’s why it’s so transmissible,” Dr. Mahale explained. “You need more than just a cloth mask. A surgical mask is recommended, which are readily available everywhere. You can also do a KN95, which is also very useful. The major thing about masking is that it needs to cover your mouth and nose and fit properly.”
The Austin Independent School District recently recommended students returning to class after the holiday break this week should wear two masks while at school. While Dr. Swegler supports that idea, she suggested at the very minimum children should wear a disposable surgical mask when they go back to school during this ongoing omicron surge.
“You have no idea if there’s a child in the classroom that might be immune compromised, or you may or may not be aware if somebody’s going through chemotherapy and if they need to be in the classroom with you,” Dr. Swegler said. “There are vulnerable individuals, and it is up to us as society to step forward and protect vulnerable individuals.”
Dr. Swegler said people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or those trying to rule out a case are making up about half the patients her clinic is seeing right now. She also said about 50% of the tests her clinic is doing are coming back positive, so she’s urging the community to take every precaution they can not to catch COVID-19 or spread it to others, which includes wearing a mask as an effective safeguard.