As cases of the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant continue to increase in the US, many experts have pushed for Americans to upgrade their masks to better protect themselves—i.e., ditch the handmade cloth masks that were fashionable in spring 2020 for options like the high-quality N95s and KN95s that are now more available.
Taking note of the shift, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that it is working to update the mask guidance on its website, which hasn’t been refreshed since last fall, prior to omicron’s rise. Meanwhile, the White House is actively considering providing high-quality masks to Americans.
In a press briefing Wednesday, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients offered little detail on what a federal mask distribution program might look like or when it could come, noting only, “We’re in the process right now of strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans.”
Any future mask distribution will be far too late to stop the tsunami of omicron cases that is now towering over the US. But it could help Americans recover from the wave more quickly and avert future waves as SARS-CoV-2 settles into endemicity, as experts expect.
Still, the hope that Americans will readily don high-quality masks—even when freely distributed by the government—seems overly optimistic. Mask usage in various settings has been among the most controversial and divisive disease-prevention methods throughout the pandemic. Sadly, they remain so even into the pandemic’s third year and after numerous studies have indicated their effectiveness in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While the CDC’s forthcoming mask update will likely highlight the higher efficacy of high-quality masks, double masking, and tight-fitting masks, the CDC has made clear that it will settle for almost any type of masking, as long as the mask covers people’s mouths and noses.
During the White House press briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke plainly, saying that the agency’s mask website is “in need of updating right now.” But, she continued, “what I will say is the best mask that you can… wear is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long—that you can tolerate in public, indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it.”
“We will provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks, such as N95s, and information that the public needs about how to make a choice of which mask is the right one for them,” Dr. Walensky added. But overall, the “CDC continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask.”