I’m a scientist and this is why your face mask might NOT protect against Omicron – and the best to wear

EXPERTS are warning that not all face coverings will protect you against the super infectious Omicron Covid variant.

Masks are one of many crucial interventions that can stop you from picking up the virus from people around you.

They are once again mandatory across many indoor settings in the UK in the face of Omicron.

But, amid concerns about staggeringly high case rates moving into Christmas, some say the standard face covering is not enough.

Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Care Health Services, University of Oxford, said:  “Masks that do not cover the nose and mouth with a snug seal will not provide adequate protection against Omicron.”

Cloth face coverings – the type that are washable – do not have a seal around the nose that eliminate any risk of particles getting to the nostrils or mouth.

Prof Greenhalgh told The Sun: “Omicron is really contagious so you can catch it more easily – hence need to be doubly sure you have a high filtration mask and that it fits well. 

“The bendy bit round the nose is good – even better, a bit of tape to close the seal.”

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She said the best masks were “high filtration masks”, those labelled FFP2, FFP3, or N95.

Guidance for England says a face mask is only mandatory in various indoor settings, as Prof Greenhalgh advised: "Well-fitting, high-filtration masks should be worn at all times when indoors, especially in crowded settings such as supermarkets.

"Travelling on public transport with people who are unmasked is extremely risky."

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Her comments echo those of others around the world who are wary of the super-spreading Omicron variant.

Canadians are being urged to ditch single-layer face masks in favour of tighter fitted ones.

The head of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, Dr Peter Juni, said: “The issue here is if you have a single-layer, the ability to filtrate is absolutely minimal and doesn’t make a difference whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, professor Dr David Fisman of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health said that masks need to be able to filter out tiny air particles.

Dr Fisman said in an interview with Shift NB that "we've known for over a year" that COVID-19 spreads through aerosol.

"And that's really important because that means people get infected by breathing in these tiny particles,” he said.

Dr Fisman said the problem with any face covering is when it’s "very baggy" around the sides.

Respirators “are really fitted to your face," Dr Fisman said, and so are “acting to filter out any particles in the air that you breathe”.

Some experts believe Omicron may be able to spread faster because it generates more aerosols – tiny particles from talking or breathing that can contain the virus.

Rather than dropping straight to the floor like droplets from coughing or sneezing, aerosols linger in the air for longer and are more able to bypass thin materials.

Don Milton, an aerobiologist at the University of Maryland, told Stat News that research suggested Omicron has "much increased potential for aerosol generation during breathing.

“Alpha was more transmissible, and then came Delta, which was more transmissible than Alpha, and Omicron is upping the game even more," he said.

What face masks are best?

The kind of face masks that exist are: 

  • Medical masks: The blue ones you see commonly in public and in healthcare settings. They are disposable, loose fitting and filter out large air particles.
  • Respirators: Respirators are available at different performance levels such as FFP2, FFP3, N95, N99. They filter out both large and small particles. The World Health Organisation cites studies which show the filtration systems of FFP2 and N95 masks are 94 and 95 per cent effective respectively. These masks have to be changed frequently to work properly.
  • Cloth masks: Usually single layer – but better when multiple layers – these masks will mostly trap respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs.They are reusable.

It’s no surprise that medical-grade masks and respirators provide better protection against Covid.

FFP3 masks are the most effective, followed by FFP2 and N95, then medical masks and, finally, cloth masks.

Those made at home or fabric ones bought online or in stores still give a layer of protection you otherwise would not have had.

Medical masks can be bought in almost every shop.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) tends to advise them for people at heightened risk of getting seriously ill with Covid, such as those over the age of 60 and with underlying health conditions.

The more robust respiratory masks are “designed to protect healthcare workers who provide care to Covid-19 patients”, the WHO says.

But FFP2 masks are available to buy in stores, such as Boots, UK Meds and Amazon.

The WHO currently says if you are healthy and under the age of 60, and do not have an underlying health condition, you can still use fabric masks.

The UK guidance has also remained the same even in light of Omicron.

The Government website says: “Cloth face coverings and disposable face coverings work best if they are made with multiple layers (at least 2) and form a good fit around the nose and mouth.”

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