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As the highly infectious COVID-19 Omicron variant surges, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its mask recommendations. The agency notes that people “can choose” N95 or KN95 masks and adds that N95 masks offer “the highest level of protection.” But the CDC also makes it clear that whatever the type, the most important thing is to wear a well-fitting mask consistently.

Learn more from a UC Davis Health expert about which mask is the best to protect yourself and others

The Omicron variant isincredibly infectious. Everyone should be masking (covering both the mouth and nose) when indoors around anyone not in their household and outdoors when in crowded situations. Several studies have indicated how effective masks can be in protecting yourself and others. It’s important to remember that you may be asymptomatic and not know you are infected but still able to spread COVID-19, so masking up in these situations helps to protect vulnerable people you could unknowingly infect.

California announced on Dec. 13 that it will once again mandate masks for everyone in all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), masks are required for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in all of the following locations: 

  • public transportation (including airplanes, ships, buses, taxis, and rideshares)
  • K-12 schools
  • health care settings
  • long-term care facilities
  • state and local correction facilities and detention centers
  • homeless shelters

CDPH still requires all unvaccinated people to wear masks in indoor settings and businesses.

    Yes. California announced on Dec. 13 that it will once again mandate masks for everyone in all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

    Watch video: N95 Masks and Omicron - How to Properly Use Disposable Respirators for COVID‑19

    There is strong evidence that properly worn N95 or KN95 masks are the most protective in terms of blocking transmission. The CDC updated its mask recommendations to include these two masks, adding that N95 masks offer "the highest level of protection." If an N95 mask is not available, a surgical mask covered with a cloth mask can be very effective.

    If you’re in an enclosed space where you can’t distance from people, like in an airport or airplane, it's recommended that you wear some form of an N95 respirator. Two examples are N95 and KN95 masks. The N95 is the American standard and has straps that go around your head. The KN95 is the Chinese or Korean standard and has ear loops. The “95” in its name means it filters out 95 percent of microparticles.

    Learn about which masks are best to protect against Omicron

    About 60% or more of KN95s circulating in the U.S. are fake. You should look for a brand name, serial number, and lot number, which are almost always printed on the real ones. In addition, N95s will be printed with the acronym “NIOSH,” which stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

    Check out more ways to spot a fake N95 or KN95 mask

    View the CDC's list of approved masks

    Watch Video: Surgical Masks and Omicron - Why You May Need to Upgrade Your Mask

    Yes. Because of how easily the Omicron variant can spread, it's recommended that people upgrade their masks from cloth to surgical masks. Surgical masks are inexpensive and are made of three layers. They should thoroughly cover your nose, mouth and chin.

    To minimize contamination from hands, you should try to wear your mask as long as you can throughout the day. It’s recommended that you replace your surgical mask every 24 hours, and whenever it’s visibly soiled or dirty. Between uses, you can keep it inside a clean paper bag.

    Learn about which masks are best to protect against Omicron

    Watch Video: Cloth Masks and Omicron - What Works and When to Upgrade

    It's best to use a medical grade rectangular surgical mask if they are available because these are standardized and known to prevent infection. If you choose to wear a cloth mask, choose one that’s functional rather than fashionable. See how many layers it has: the more layers, the better. Cloth masks that have multiple layers – such as those that have a pocket for a filter – will offer the most protection.

    If you hold up a cloth mask to the light, you don’t want to see a lot of light penetrating through. Make sure you cover your nose and chin, adjust the bendable nose piece to fit and tighten the ear loops as needed. If your ear loops are too loose, you can buy adjusters to tighten the loops behind your ears or wrap behind your head.

    You should wash and dry your cloth masks regularly – preferably after daily use. So it’s a good idea to have extras on hand while others are in the wash.

    Homemade masks don’t prevent transmission but can reduce the quantity and size of COVID-19 droplets you transmit or are you’re exposed to.

    Get directions to make low-cost face masks for yourself and your family

    Masks with filter ports can increase the spread COVID-19. They’re designed for people working around caustic fumes or chemicals – and they force out the air you’re breathing through the port. Instead of protecting someone from you, they propel your breath, and possibly droplets with the virus, even farther and more forcefully.

    N95s with the filter in the middle also do not prevent someone from spreading the virus. They filter air coming in but do let air out.

    The majority of KN95 masks available in the US are counterfeit, so double check the CDC website to make sure that any KN95 mask that you plan to use are approved by NIOSH.

    Plexiglass shields and eye protection are an additional preventive measure against transmission but do not substitute for mask wearing.

    Face coverings are typically not required when exercising outdoors alone (walking, hiking, bicycling, running, etc.) or with people who live with you, and when no one else is within 6 feet. However, you should still have a face covering with you in case you encounter a situation where you will be within 6 feet of other people.

    Children over the age of 2 should wear a face covering in public, unless they have a health reason not to, according to CDC guidelines. However, children under age 2 should not wear masks because they can be choking hazards, can cause breathing trouble and the bands that go around the head can be strangulation hazards. In addition, children of that age cannot reliably remove their mask on their own and could suffocate. View this video and story PDF from the UC Davis MIND Institute to help teach your child about wearing masks.

    Parent resources to learn more about children and COVID-19