The CDC Is About to Release Much Stricter Mask Guidelines

The new guidance will judge masks by their efficacy and break them into two tiers.

With more transmissible COVID strains circulating, experts have been vocal about which masks provide the best protection from the virus. For much of the pandemic, people were resigned to using flimsy fabric masks or simple homemade face coverings, but professionals have become increasingly outspoken about the need for nationwide mask upgrades. In response to these warnings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is drawing up significantly stricter mask guidelines. Read on to find out what the guidelines entail, and for masks to avoid, This One Type of Face Mask Is "Unacceptable" Warns the Mayo Clinic.

The CDC is developing new mask standards, which would divide masks into two tiers.

Woman wearing face mask at airport and maintaining social distance
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CNN obtained a draft of what would be the first national mask evaluation standard for consumers. The proposed guidance, which has yet to be finalized, would divide masks into two tiers. The review process is still ongoing, so the guidelines could change after further consideration.

Per CNN, the document sorts masks into two quality levels. To be considered a level one mask, the product would have to filter 20 percent of particles, which would make the mask breathable but would provide limited protection. To be deemed a level two mask, which is preferable, the mask would require a "high performance" filtration of at least 50 percent of particles. The level two mask would be less breathable but would provide much fuller protection. And for more mask guidance, If You Have This Mask, Get a New One Now, Experts Say.

Health experts have been calling for higher quality masks.

A pile of varied kinds of face masks resting on a concrete backdrop

These changes come after many experts have signaled that mask standards need an upgrade. Ashish Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, called for the U.S. to step up mask quality. During a Jan. 8 interview with NBC, he discussed how to limit the spread of the new strains and stressed the use of better masks. "High-quality masks are really important," Jha noted. "We've not done much to make masks high quality—that's something we still need to work on."

Scott Gottlieb, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), also called for more efficient masks in light of the new variants during a Jan. 17 interview on CBS. "The quality of the masks really matters right now," Gottlieb said. "If you wear a higher quality mask with this new infection, that's going to be very important." And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.

The new mask standards will be an upgrade from current guidance.

Portrait of young man with mask for protection from corona virus outbreak at the sky train station

The current guidance on masks is somewhat inconsistent. According to CNN, only medical-grade masks, such as N95 masks, and respirators must adhere to standards. These kinds of masks must be regulated in fit and filtration efficacy, among other things. The proposed standards will be more wide-sweeping, as well as more specific regarding a mask's fit, design, and performance. And the guidelines will also detail testing requirements that masks must pass.

CNN reported that the draft has requirements for both single-use and reusable masks. Notably, the standards prohibit vents, valves, or any fixture that would allow airflow to circumvent filtration, with few exceptions. And for more face coverings to steer clear of, The CDC Warns Against Using These 6 Face Masks.

These mask standards are still more lenient than others abroad.

A young woman standing on the sidewalk of a city wearing a face mask checks her smartphone.

Although these standards would be stricter than the current guidance, they're still far below what other countries have in place. CNN reports that Germany, Austria, and France require masks with a minimum filtration efficacy of 80 to 90 percent in public areas. These new mandates abroad came to fruition after local health officials voiced their concern over the mask quality they were seeing.

France's Health Minister Olivier Veran went on France Inter radio on Jan. 19 to discuss which masks were sufficient and which were not. "Artisan masks that you make at home, with the best intentions in the world, respecting the official advice, do not necessarily offer all the necessary guarantees," Veran said. The Health Minister made it clear people should opt for more efficient masks. "All masks which have a filtering power greater than 90 percent are valid—that includes almost all surgical masks for the general public," he added. And for more ways to protect yourself, Doing This to Your Mask Could Keep You Even Safer From COVID, Experts Say.

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