N95s offer best Omicron protection but cloth and surgical masks still have their place: doctors
How well masks fit is part of what makes them effective, says Dr. Brenda Wilson
As COVID-19 cases soar in Newfoundland and Labrador, driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant, doctors in the province say masks — along with a vaccine booster shot — still offer a lot of protection.
Dr. Brenda Wilson, a physician and public health researcher with Memorial University, says the N95 mask is still regarded as the best on the market in terms of protection but the simple surgical mask — doubled with a cloth mask over the top — is a good option as well.
"I think we're in the era now that what we want to do is ensure we're giving ourselves the best protection and we're protecting others," Wilson told CBC News on Tuesday.
"How well masks fit, and how comfortable they are to wear, are part of what makes them effective."
The N95 mask filters out about 95 per cent of particles of a certain size in the air, said Wilson, while a surgical mask doubled with a cloth mask filters out about 70 per cent.
And while the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, Wilson said wearing masks outdoors isn't necessary unless the area is crowded.
"It doesn't float through the air faster, it doesn't gather more intensely. The difference Omicron has versus Delta or any of the other variants or the original virus, is that once it gets into us it sticks better," she said.
Hannah Wallace, a PhD candidate in immunology and infectious diseases at MUN, said in the beginning of the pandemic there wasn't a lot of data to suggest how well masks were actually working in preventing transmission.
She said the initial thought was any kind of barrier between one person's mouth and another person would help prevent moisture droplets from spreading.
"It was suggested at least wear a cloth mask, put something there to try and stop droplets," she said.
In the early going, N95 masks were being held mostly for the health-care workers who needed them, especially with a sparse global supply.
But things have changed, Wallace said, with N95s being produced in Canada.
Regardless of the mask, Wallace said data for vaccines and booster doses suggests people who are unvaccinated are five times more likely to end up in the hospital due to the Omicron variant, and 15 times more likely to end up in intensive care.
"That's a substantial proportion," she said.
"The vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization, looking at some data that came from the U.K., four weeks after your booster it was about 88 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization."
With files from The St. John's Morning Show