Masks and covid-19: Explaining the latest guidance

A Los Angeles mall food court on July 19. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The rapidly increasing number of coronavirus cases and breakneck pace of the omicron variant as it spreads across the nation have prompted health experts to reemphasize the importance of wearing masks to help slow the spread of the disease and protect the vulnerable. Some states have reinstated mask mandates in indoor public spaces in response to rising case counts.

Public health agencies continue to highlight vaccination, including booster shots for people who are eligible, as the first line of defense against the omicron variant. Meanwhile, some experts are also recommending that people not only resume wearing masks, but that they also consider upgrading cloth masks to surgical masks, and, in certain cases, respirators, even if they are vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance on masks, noting that N95 respirators offer the most protection against omicron while “loosely woven cloth products” offer the least. Additionally, President Biden announced on Jan. 13 that free, high-quality face masks would be made available to all Americans.

CDC says N95 masks offer far better protection than cloth masks against omicron variant

“It’s time in many places in the country that we mask up again,” said Jaimie Meyer, an infectious-disease physician at the Yale School of Medicine. “We need those extra layers of protection that we didn’t necessarily need as much a couple months ago, when levels of virus that were circulating were relatively low.”

William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, agreed: “Given the contagiousness of this virus, I think we should get that mask back out of our drawer and put it on, particularly when we’re going indoors to group activities where there are congregations of people.”

Some people are catching coronavirus after being vaccinated. Johns Hopkins University infectious disease expert Lisa Maragakis gives advice on how to stay safe. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Below we’ve compiled answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about masks and how to use them in this latest phase of pandemic life. These recommendations are drawn from guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, previously published Washington Post articles and new interviews with experts specializing in infectious diseases, public health and air quality.

Please keep in mind that as the coronavirus, its variants and vaccines continue to be studied and understood, masking advice is likely to change.

Is it the cold, the flu or covid? What to know amid rapid spread of omicron

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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