Nova Scotia

As COVID-19 evolves, so should your mask game, experts say

As the COVID-19 landscape evolves, so do recommendations from specialists. It may be time to upgrade your surgical and cloth masks to better protect yourself against the Omicron variant.

Surgical and cloth masks can sag, creating opportunities for Omicron to infect

An N95 respirator mask manufactured by 3M. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

In light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it might be time to upgrade your mask. 

That's the growing consensus among experts whose recommendations are shifting with the knowledge base around COVID-19. Some are expressing concern with the level of protection surgical and cloth masks provide against Omicron. 

Dalhousie University epidemiologist Susan Kirkland is a member of the national COVID-19 Immunity Taskforce. She says the logical upgrade for the general population is to the N95 or KN95 masks.

"The difference is the quality of filtration, but also the degree to which you can get a seal around your face," she told CBC News.

Kirkland's feelings were recently echoed by Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, given how transmissible Omicron is. Any small gaps around the side of the masks or around the nose give the chance for tiny airborne particles, or aerosol, to get through. 

No more cloth masks, says Tam

1 year ago
Duration 0:43
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says people need to be wearing three-ply surgical masks at the very least, and N95-type respirators if possible. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, offers an analogy: think of COVID-19 like cigarette smoke, which, as aerosols, hang in the hair after exhaling. 

"How would I get rid of cigarette smoke if someone smoked a cigarette in my house and I didn't like the smell? You open a window," he said. "Because it infects by people breathing in 'the smoke,' breathing in these tiny particles, you want to protect yourself with a well-fitting respirator that is going to filter those little particles out."

Fisman points to the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, which says the N95 masks can be used up to five times, if properly maintained and not damaged. 

"The filter itself lasts for about 40 hours of 'on-face' time. So that filter is not going to give out first," he said. 

Surgical masks don't form the tight seal necessary to be as effective as N95 masks. (Shutterstock/Harry Wedzinga)

Michael Doyle, a safety specialist for mask manufacturer 3M, said while the N95's design makes it better suited for the Omicron wave, there are caveats. 

"Facial hair? A big no-no," he said. "It's going to break the seal. Some cosmetics can break the seal. Obviously, earrings, facial piercings — anything like that can break the seal and can basically render the N95 respirator useless."

Province still reviewing evidence

Nova Scotia's Health Department said in a statement that evidence around masking is being considered and more information will be communicated to Nova Scotians soon. In the meantime, it says to pay attention to how well masks fit your face.

Kirkland believes it's time to do "everything in our power" to slow Omicron's spread. 

"The fact that we're having an outbreak right now, that we're seeing a lot of cases and a lot of transmission, I think it's smart to take whatever protection you can, and that includes outdoors as well." 

With files from Gareth Hampshire, Mainstreet Halifax and Shift New Brunswick.