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CDC updates face-mask guidance with an emphasis on N95 respirators

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published its latest mask guidance update, stating that the public can wear high-filtration respirators like N95 and KN95 masks. The agency didn’t go so far as to advise the public to specifically seek out and use these respirators, though it did note that these products…

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published its latest mask guidance update, stating that the public can wear high-filtration respirators like N95 and KN95 masks. Although the agency did not advise people to use these respirators, it noted that they offer the highest level of protection against the virus.

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The CDC published its latest face mask guidance on January 14, 2022, stating that high-quality N95 and KN95 respirators offer the best protection against COVID-19, assuming they’re made to NIOSH standards. The agency warns against wearing a poorly-made or unapproved face mask. This could make the wearer more susceptible to the virus.

Among other things, the agency specifically addressed concerns about shortages, noting that while the public can wear these products, the N95 masks labeled as “surgical” quality should be left for healthcare workers. While an ordinary high-quality N95 will help protect the wearer against the virus, surgical N95 masks are made to protect against additional risks specific to healthcare settings, such as blood splatter.

Though the CDC didn’t say that everyone should wear high-filtration respirators, it did come very close, noting in its update:

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.

The statement leaves room for those who find N95 masks too uncomfortable — as the agency has said in the past, any mask is better than no mask at all. However, it is important to make sure the mask used is correct.

The CDC advises against masks with built-in exhaust valves. These valves allow air to escape from the respirator during exhalation, which can lead to unfiltered air. Masks with large gaps around their edges may not filter particles that could contain the virus as well.

While this update provides new information and strongly indicates everyone should upgrade to a higher-quality mask, it doesn’t go as far as to directly advise a switch — and that has proven controversial. This update seems to be a concession of growing criticism about the agency’s relative silence on face masks due to omicron.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said during a White House briefing that the agency won’t change its guidance, but she did acknowledge that, at minimum, the CDC needed to update the information it presents on face masks (via The Hill).

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