What you need to know about Omicron and masks

Two years into the COVID pandemic, Australians are well aware of the importance of masks in helping to limit the spread of the disease.

But with several variants now in circulation – Delta and Omicron the latest – have the guidelines changed? Is your homemade cloth mask as effective against Omicron as it was against the original strain of the virus? Or is it time for an ‘upgrade’?

Invented in the 1970s, N95 masks have been around for nearly half a century, with very little change in their design. But COVID necessity has become the mother of the invention of advances in mask technology. Masks that can identify if they are correctly fitted, and even detect COVID, have been developed.

A new type of mask, dubbed a ‘Fitbit for the face’ has been developed by Dr Josiah Hester and his engineering colleagues at Northwestern University in Illinois. Dr Hester’s prototype mask features a small electronic module packed with sensors. The module attaches to the inside of a standard medical-grade N95 mask.

Dr Hester’s inspiration came during the first COVID wave when clinicians expressed concern about whether their masks were still doing their job at the end of a 12-hour shift. His module, which is undergoing clinical trials, can be removed from a used mask and placed in a new one as required.

In a separate development, Harvard University scientists have developed a mask module that can actually detect COVID. Harvard’s Peter Nguyen says the device, which costs just $US5 ($A7) basically “miniaturises an entire laboratory onto a wearable garment”.

What do these developments mean for us?
With the new devices still at the prototype stage, there will be no chance of obtaining one in the near future, nor will there be a need for them among the general population. The Australian government’s official stance on masks remains the same: for the general population cloth masks provide sufficient protection in most circumstances.

Read: Most Australians believe they are COVID compliant. Are they?

In the US, however, there have been suggestions that cloth masks are little more than decoration. Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, believes the general should be wearing disposal surgical masks as a minimum, and N95 (P2) masks where possible, especially in crowded places.

“We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” she said. “You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”

P2 or not P2 – is that the question?
When it comes to making a decision about masks, the advice can be quite daunting, especially with references to P2, N95 and KN95 littered amongst the literature. What do these letters and numbers mean?

The ’95’ in N95 represents a filtering of 95 per cent of small airborne particles in a mask that is certified to that level. This designation was set by the US’s occupational safety body, NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

Read: From COVID hero to has-been – the critical element dismissed

That filtration rate qualifies N95 masks as meeting P2 standards in Australia, which require filtration rate of at least 94 per cent. A P1 rating represents a rate of 80 per cent or higher, while a filtration rate of 99.95 per cent  or higher is needed to attain a P3 certification.

KN95 masks are manufactured in China and also meet P2 standards, although the CDC has suggested that around 60 per cent of KN95 masks sold in the US are counterfeit and do not meet that standard.

Should I make changes to my mask-wearing habits?
As impressive as the latest developments in mask technology are, for the general population, the guidelines for wearing masks remain essentially the same as at the beginning of the COVID outbreak. In the lead-up to Christmas, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shied away from the idea of reintroducing blanket mask mandates, urging personal responsibility.

Read: Latest ‘must-have’ device in the fight against COVID

Depending on your state or territory, masks are still required in some circumstances, such as retail outlets and on public transport. Those masks do not have to meet P2 standard, so those who would like to continue wearing a cloth mask made by a loved one or sporting the logo of a favourite football team can continue to do so, knowing it will provide adequate protection in most circumstances.

No matter the type or rating of mask worn, the key is to ensure it is close fitting and worn correctly, covering both the mouth and nose.

Have you tried the different types of masks? Are you confused by the recommendation? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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