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With omicron so transmissible, experts warn everyone to up their mask game

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Get ready for updated guidance from the CDC about masks. We need them as much as we ever have, but health officials say omicron is so transmissible we need to up our game, which means you might want to trade in your bedazzled cloth coverings for high-filtration masks like N95s. I know; I've got a lot of questions about what this means for my family. I'm sure all of you listening do, too. So let's bring in the lady with the answers - NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's first underscore your credentials, Maria, because you have spent a lot of time researching the efficiency of different masks, right?

GODOY: Oh yeah, and trying them out on my own family.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GODOY: And I can tell you that N95s and similar respirators offer way more protection than cloth masks. I mean, they're called N95s because they're designed to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles when worn correctly. And they're made with a material that has electrostatic charge, so basically, it uses the power of static electricity to trap incoming particles. Plus, they have a snug fit, and with masks, a snug fit means better protection.

MARTIN: I know it does, but I have to be honest. There have been a few times where I've had to wear an N95 all day, and yeah, it was snug, and it was not that comfortable.

GODOY: I know. I know. But not all of them are hard to wear. You can now get N95 masks in different shapes, and that can really affect comfort.

MARTIN: OK.

GODOY: For example, I personally dislike the cup-shaped N95s because they're really uncomfortable, but I do like the ones that fold in the middle. I spoke with Aaron Collins. He's a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. He's known as the Mask Nerd because he's been testing hundreds of masks for the last year, and he's a fan of the duckbill-shaped N95s.

AARON COLLINS: These, like, duckbill-style masks, they look a little goofy, but it's ultra-breathable. I'm pretty sure you could run a marathon in that thing and not have a problem.

MARTIN: I mean, really?

(LAUGHTER)

GODOY: I know. I know.

MARTIN: I like his optimism, yeah.

GODOY: I'm not running a marathon for any reason.

(LAUGHTER)

GODOY: But regardless of shape, N95s are made to the U.S. government NIOSH standard and are rigorously tested. So they are a reliable choice.

MARTIN: OK. So what about masks like KN95s and KF94s? You see those around. Are those masks just as good?

GODOY: They can be pretty close. Both of those masks use ear loops, which makes them more comfortable, but it means they don't seal quite as tightly to your face. One thing to know is that KF94s are made to a Korean standard, and these are regulated by the South Korean government. They've got a really good reputation. Now, KN95s are a Chinese standard, but the Chinese government doesn't regulate them strictly. And while there are some good KN95s, there's also been lots of low-quality or just fake ones on the market. Ann Miller is with Project N95. That's a nonprofit that connects consumers with legitimate masks. She says she's seen more fake documentation for masks over the last two years than legitimate paperwork.

ANNE MILLER: People will submit documentation on their product that is maybe a false European Union certificate, a false FDA registration. Maybe it's a product that's mislabeled as being FDA approved when these are not FDA-approved items.

MARTIN: I mean, that is so stressful, Maria. It's hard enough to just deal with the reality of the pandemic, but now you got to worry about whether or not your mask is fake.

GODOY: Yeah, it can be hard to tell if it is real or not, so experts I spoke with say make sure to buy from a trusted source. Project N95 sells masks from vetted distributors. There's also Home Depot and Lowe's. Aaron Collins says if you're buying from Amazon, go to the manufacturer's shop - so the 3M store or Kimberly-Clark store on Amazon - rather than a third-party vendor. For KN94s, Collins says Korean importers like Be Healthy USA and KollecteUSA are a good bet.

MARTIN: Real quick - what about kids?

GODOY: Yeah. You know, they're not - N95s aren't regulated for them, but you will have to go to a KN95 or KF94. The Mask Nerd has a whole list of brands that he's tested for kids at his Twitter profile at @masknerd.

MARTIN: Super helpful. Maria Godoy, our health correspondent. Thank you.

GODOY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.