Wearing N95s and KN95s better protects people against omicron

The CDC recently changed its mask guidelines on January 14th, recommending people to “wear the most protective mask [they] can that fits well and that [they] will wear consistently.” Well-fitting masks are ones that have been approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), such as N95 masks — additionally, the CDC has explicitly specified that N95 and KN95 masks have the best protection against COVID-19.

COVID-19 has been spreading throughout the nation at a concerningly rapid rate. The recent change in guidelines, however, is due to the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus. According to CNBC, in one week the WHO reported a record 15 million new cases around the globe. By December last year, omicron was considered the most dominant strain of the virus, taking the world by storm. But why should your mask be any different?

How N95s and KN95s Differ from Other Masks

N95 and KN95 masks have several layers of polypropylene, a synthetic, tightly-packed material, making them significantly more effective than cloth masks. When these masks are worn tightly, air cannot enter through the sides — and the masks can prevent any virus particle as small as 0.3 micrometers — or 0.0003 millimeters — from passing through.

According to Health-desk, polypropylene filters are made as thousands of nonwoven fibers enter a process called melt blow extrusion. A sheet of fibers is made when each thread, which is extremely thin, travels through a hole on a special machine. After hot air is applied, the fibers bind tightly enough to filter out 95% of virus particles.

The result of this process of making filters is one that has mechanical and electrostatic properties. When a virus particle hits the surface of the mask, the particle is stuck on the mask, like a flea caught in a spiderweb. Scitation recognizes that N95 and KN95 masks have an electrostatic charge that stops viral particles. The electrostatic charge increases filtration partly by coulomb attractions, which are attractions from opposite charges, between the viral particles and the mask.

The Current Importance of N95 and KN95 Masks

With the highly-contagious omicron variant spreading, N95s and KN95s are proving to be increasingly beneficial. According to Scientific American, omicron’s high transmissibility and its high capacity to elude human immune systems make the variant much more contagious than the delta variant. Evidence indicates that omicron does avoid responses from the human immune system since the variant reinfects those who already got the virus.

A variant’s contagiousness is measured by its effective reproduction number, or Rt, which estimates the potential number of individuals who could get infected from one individual with the virus. The omicron variant, as stated by Sutter Health, has a reproductive number of 7, while the delta variant has a reproductive number of 5.08.

“It’s definitely a necessary safety precaution,” freshman Pranav Avadhanam said. “I would always try and take the better mask.”

Freshman Dhruva Ramachandran shares that he also started becoming more careful once more students started getting COVID.

“I wasn’t as wary before [the CDC guidelines changed] because it seemed like cases were dropping, [and] I was fully vaccinated,” said Ramachandran. “Things seemed to be going well, but then, it got to the point where . . . I thought ‘okay, this is spreading fast.’ [There are] so many people who have [COVID], so maybe I should start taking more precautions.”

Cloth masks, on the other hand, provide the least protection. Bloomberg states that cloth masks can only block 10 to 30% of viral particles.

Assistant Principal Sydney Fernandez originally wore a cloth mask and describes her experience switching to the safer masks.

“I think that [wearing N95 and KN95 masks are] keeping me safer,” Fernandez said. “I also think that if for some reason I were to have COVID and not know it, it’s more protective for the people around me.”

Because of omicron, the school is distributing five KN95 masks to every student and staff member. Additionally, since the omicron variant is evidently more contagious than the delta variant, students and staff members are all encouraged to wear these high-quality masks.

“[Wearing N95 or KN95 masks] would be the safest thing for our school,” Fernandez said.

Since KN95s are much more effective at filtering out viral particles, these masks can drastically reduce the spread of COVID if students who originally wore cloth masks switch to KN95 masks.

By distributing KN95s, MVHS is taking a step toward a safer school environment, but there is still room for improvement. Allocating masks is only a short-term solution to the problem since students cannot use these masks forever: as stated by USA Today, the CDC recommends reusing N95s and KN95s for no more than five times. If the school is interested in distributing more masks, the school has to purchase more masks every five weeks until the school year ends. This, however, might not be the case since the school’s future plans for masks has not yet been determined. Immediate action that the school should take includes devising a plan to have students maintain wearing high-quality masks for the rest of the school year.

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