Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022

Are you tired of graphs showing the increase in COVID cases? Here’s a new one for you: From 2012 to 2019 The Los Angele Times mentioned the word “mask” about 400 – 500 times a year, mostly in regard to beauty masks, swim masks, and Halloween masks. In 2020, “mask” was used 2,760 times. In 2021, 1,810 times. If you think this indicates a downward trend, don’t be too sure. “Mask” has come up 93 times in the first two weeks of 2022. I think they’re staying around for a while.

I never thought I would have a mask wardrobe, but I do and now most of them are obsolete. Holiday masks, masks to match my outfit, a singing mask, and a KN95 from Amazon. My favorite is the gingerbread-themed mask from Alsace. Ozzie has his nose on the valve mask, which was a thoughtful gift in 2020, but is now on CDC’s bad list. The large black mask in the middle is a singing mask which has extra room for breathing so you can hit those notes.

My first masks were homemade by friends and family, back in March of 2020 when masks for home use were hard to find. Later I was able to find the disposable surgical masks, which the CDC also calls “procedure masks.”

In the summer of 2020, I favored the gaiter masks, which were very breathable, color-coordinated, and were great for hiking at Yosemite in August, 2020, because I could pull it up when we passed people on the trails. But they fell out of favor by the fall because they were too porous. Through most of 2021 I accumulated colorful cloth masks like the ones pictured above.

Yesterday the CDC updated their masking guidelines. The new recommendations will probably make no one happy because they offer a range of choices, listed from the least protective (cloth masks) to the most protective (N95 respirators). Their statement that “any mask is better than no mask” falls far short of mandating the highly effective N95 and KN95 masks that some would like to see, however, they do list situations in which the most effective protection should be worn, such as when caring for a COVID-19 patient or traveling on public transportation.

Cloth masks are still around for now, but they are definitely being questioned. The CDC’s latest guidelines state that, “Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection,” and recommend a disposable mask underneath. In December, CNN’s medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, went further, saying, “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in the light of Omicron.”

The highest rated mask is the disposable N95 or KN95. Mine came in a box of 30 which I bought for my trip to Europe in December. It fits closely and is not woven fabric, making it harder to breathe. I tolerated it pretty well while sitting in the airplane or walking slowly, but I found myself gasping for breath when I had to walk fast, to get to the gate on time, for example, or keep up with a guide. In these situations, a disposable 3-ply surgical or procedure mask is probably the best substitute.

Many places specifically require N95 or surgical masks only. Some European countries and airlines no longer accept cloth masks at all. Going out locally? Check the requirements for theaters, campuses, schools, nursing homes, or any other institution you plan to visit to make sure you can go in.

Don’t get me wrong. I am so looking forward to the day when we can see each other’s faces all around us. Humans are social beings and we need the confirmation and feedback we get from each other through facial expressions. Hopefully we will not have to be without it much longer.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“Why you should upgrade your mask as the Omicron variant spreads,” CNN, Dec. 4, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/24/health/cloth-mask-omicron-variant-wellness/index.html

“These Airlines Have Banned Fabric Face Masks on Planes,” Travel and Leisure, August 19, 2021. https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/airlines-banning-fabric-face-mask-coverings

“CDC: Ditch your cloth mask and get a NIOSH-approved N95 for the best protection against Omicron,” Business Insider, Jan. 14, 2022. https://www.businessinsider.com/cdc-swap-cloth-mask-for-n95-to-protect-against-omicron-2022-1

“European countries mandate medical-grade masks over homemade cloth face coverings,” CNN, Jan. 22, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/22/europe/europe-covid-medical-masks-intl/index.html

“Mask rules tightened in Europe during winter COVID-19 wave,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-01-14/mask-rules-get-tighter-in-europe-in-winters-covid-19-wave

Other useful sources

Types of Masks and Respirators, CDC, updated Jan. 14, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/types-of-masks.html

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be written on our memories just as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, or the Cold War left their mark on past generations. Since March 11, 2020, this blog has examined the modern pandemic experience both in the media and in everyday life, drawing on my experience as a medical technologist, a historian, and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.

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