Scouring Amazon, big box stores and your local group chat for bulk deals on N95 respirators isn’t the only effective way to mask up during the ongoing Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though respirators such as the N95 or KN95 models have emerged as top choices from epidemiologists because of their secure fit and effective filters, they’ve likewise become tough to find and can retail for at least a few dollars per mask.
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But for deal hunters and Ontario parents looking to keep their kids safe ahead of the return to the classroom, there are other options for reducing the risk of COVID transmission that are recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and medical experts — ones that might not break the bank.
Add a filter for triple layers
The cloth masks that most Canadians have accumulated over the last 21 months of the pandemic are not useless — they just might need an extra layer or two.
Whether home-made or store-bought, masks made of at least two layers of tightly-woven fabric such as cotton can be effective at reducing transmission, but should ideally have a pocket in the middle of the layers to add in a filter, PHAC recommends.
You can buy filters for masks separately or make your own at home from filter fabric. Follow the manufacturer’s guidance on when to replace these filters, with most recommendations putting the frequency for swap-out as weekly.
Cloth masks vs. Omicron
Experts such as Dr. Peter Juni, the head of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, have said that single-layer cloth masks are no longer considered effective at reducing transmission amid the rapid spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“The issue here is if you have a single-layer, the ability to filtrate is absolutely minimal and doesn’t make a difference whatsoever,” he said last month.
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Your kids’ old masks might not have to go in the trash if you’re handy with a needle and thread, says Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
But unless you can add an extra layer of cloth with that filter pocket, she agrees that the loose-fitting, single-ply options are woefully out of date for the classroom in 2022.
“The single-layer masks that look cute, that just don’t provide a good fit, unless you modify them, they’re probably not very useful anymore,” she tells Global News.
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So what’s often important is not just the filter, but the fit: a loose-fitting mask such as a disposable one could let air out – or in – through the sides or top of the mask, Dr. Banerji says.
Disposable surgical-style masks are generally easy to source in bulk and can still be effective if a cloth mask is placed over top to seal up the gaps.
“The most important part is not really necessarily the extra layers, so much. The most important part is it’s sealing better around my face,” epidemiologist Dr. Cynthia Carr told Global News in a recent demonstration.
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“A surgical mask that covers the nose and mouth, that has a snug fit with a good quality cloth mask on top, could be a very reasonable option,” Dr. Banerji notes for kids heading back to school.
PHAC offers a few other tips to improve the fit of masks with some at-home adjustments.
If masks with ear loops do not have adjustable clips built-in to tighten the fit, a wearer can tie knots in the string itself to help close any gaps around the cheeks.
Similarly, if a mask doesn’t have a brace along the nose, plastic or metal clips or braces can be bought separately and placed on top of the mask to prevent particles from escaping through the top.
Should kids wear N95 masks?
Dr. Banerji says that the question of what masks are right for students heading back to school is often a question of “resources,” with many parents likely not able to source N95 respirators for their kids.
PHAC notes on its website that respirators sized for children are more difficult to find.
But even if they are available, comfort is paramount, she says. An ill-fitting N95 or KN95 that a child will need to be adjusting regularly through the day is not necessarily the right choice to keep them safe.
“You want a snug fit that’s comfortable that the kids are willing to use for most of the day. So if you have N95s and they don’t fit well or they’re uncomfortable, then kids may not wear it,” she says.
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease expert at Queen’s University, even told Global News last month that seeking out an N95 respirator over a regular medical-grade mask might not provide real bang for your buck if it’s not been properly fit-tested.
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“If you have a lot of money and you can afford an N95 mask or one of those equivalents, go ahead and buy them,” he said. “But if you can, get a medical mask — they’re not very expensive … and if you can’t afford that, but you’ve got some good cloth masks, use them, don’t forget to clean them and probably think about double-masking if you think that’s appropriate.”
PHAC still recommends medical-grade masks in situations where someone has tested positive or is showing symptoms of COVID-19, or is especially vulnerable to exposure or complications from the disease.
For parents still feeling stressed about back-to-school, Dr. Banerji says it’s normal to be concerned about safety during the Omicron wave, but adds that the best protection for kids is vaccination.
“I think it’s challenging for everyone. There’s no perfect answer to the situation,” she said.
“Everyone wants to send the kids back with no risk, but in this situation, there is no such thing. I think the best thing, the safest thing that parents can do, is get their kids vaccinated because even if they do get exposed, then they’re vaccinated. They’re not going to have as serious a disease.”
— with files from Global’s David Lao, Keesha Harewood
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