With Omicron spreading rapidly around Australia even with various measures in place, the question is being asked – should we be wearing a more protective mask?
Most Australians are still wearing surgical or cloth masks when they go to the shops or out and about.
But heavier-duty options are available, such as P2 or N95 masks.
Should we be wearing N95 masks?
University of New South Wales epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws took part in a World Health Organisation panel discussing the issue overnight.
“There’s no evidence yet that a N95 mask will protect you more than a surgical mask for Omicron,” she said.
Surgical, cloth, N95 and P2 masks all stop the spread of the virus if the user is wearing them correctly.
“For me the recommendation would be wear the best possible mask you can get your hands on,” Deakin University Associate Professor of Epidemiology Hassan Vally said.
“N95 is better than surgical which is better than cloth masks.”
But while masks do a good job stopping the virus spreading, they are not the only solution.
“There’s a really high chance of being exposed to the virus right now,” Dr Vally said.
“If you’ve got an N95 use that, but do all the other things – social distancing, avoiding big crowds.”
Many people may have been sticking with cloth masks simply because they can be reused.
But N95 masks are not disposable, and designed to be reused many times.
“The misconception is they only can be worn once,” Dr Vally said.
“These N95 masks can actually last an incredibly long time.”
N95 masks shouldn’t be washed, but the same mask shouldn’t be worn every day for long periods of time.
Dr Vally suggests people should have several N95 masks and alternate use between them.
Do cloth masks still work?
Cloth masks are still effective at preventing the spread of the virus, but only if they are made to WHO standards.
A cloth mask needs three layers to work effectively. Without an inner layer which has been charged with static electricity, it won’t do much good.
Once a cloth mask gets wet, anything can get through very easily, Dr McLaws said.
That issue is especially pertinent as Australia sweats through a humid January.
People should also have a spare mask handy for when the mask they are wearing gets wet.
Cloth masks also need to be cleaned regularly to work well.
“The same principle still holds, whether it’s Omicron or Delta. The mask still works in the same way,” Dr Vally said.
“But the benefit of wearing a mask is lost if you don’t wear them properly or wear them the whole time you are in a situation in which you may be exposed to the virus.”
How to properly wear a face mask?
If a virus is spread between two people wearing masks, it’s more likely to be a case of user error than anything else.
All too often people are wearing their mask underneath their nose, so they are breathing unfiltered virus particles in and out.
“If they’ve got COVID-19 and they’ve got no symptoms at all, they could be breathing out the virus through their nose,” Dr McLaws said.
“If they’re not infected, then they could be breathing in Omicron or Delta through their nose and it can go to their brain, go to their lungs, so they’re putting themselves at great risk.”
Dr McLaws said people who pull their mask down when outdoors should pull it totally under their chin, rather than just under the nose.
Another layer of protection
But Dr McLaws said Australians could be wearing something else to protect themselves.
“We know that eyes have ACE2 receptors, and you can catch flu through your eyes,” she said.
“The same sort of thing could happen with Omicron, because we do know that coronaviruses can be spread through the eyes.
“I’ve been telling people when they go shopping, and they’re wearing a surgical mask or a three-layered cloth mask, they could wear sunglasses or glasses indoors.”
The glasses won’t offer 100 per cent protection, but it improves your chances of not getting COVID-19.