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Hold on to your cloth masks, higher quality PPE may not always be necessary

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Though some Americans are replacing their cloth face masks for higher-quality personal protective equipment, there are instances where well-fitted cloth masks are likely enough to keep people safe.

The problem is that every setting carries its own unique risk profile. Are other people also masked and vaccinated? Is it crowded? What about air circulation?

“Can we please start putting in air purifiers and talking about ventilation of buildings and schools? Because that is also going to reduce the risk of transmission,” said the University of Pittsburgh’s Seema Lakdawala, who studies person-to-person transmission of respiratory viruses.

While there are no hard and fast rules, it is possible to think critically about a setting’s unique hazards. For example, while at work, Lakdawala mostly wears a well-fitted cloth mask.

“Everybody at my job is fully vaccinated and in my lab, we test periodically whenever anyone travels,” she said. “The risk is lower in that scenario.”

In a grocery store or a nail salon, Lakdawala shared that she might wear a surgical mask under her cloth mask. On planes, she uses an N95.

In addition to environmental factors, a person’s health status comes into play. There are times when people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated should wear additional protection.

Much of the conversation around masking has been prompted by the highly infectious omicron variant which has caused both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to spike higher than at any time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

At this point, there’s no data to suggest that omicron aerosols are smaller than previous coronavirus strains. Rather, it’s believed that mutations in omicron’s spike protein allow it to bind and replicate more readily within a person’s respiratory tract. This means that masks are just as effective at containing omicron as they were with earlier variants.

Therefore, Lakdawala says that if more people were vaccinated and wore masks of any kind, there would be less need for people to buy new PPE that will ultimately be more expensive because medical-grade masks are designed as one-time-use items.

“I just want people to put on a mask.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.