This Mask May Not Fully Protect You Against Omicron, Former FDA Head Says
The virus expert warns that not all types of face coverings will work well against the variant.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has put health officials back on high alert. Some precautions have already been renewed under the possibility that the viral offshoot could be more contagious than the currently dominant Delta variant, including the extension of a federal mask mandate for travelers on airplanes, trains, and buses through at least Mar. 18. Officials are also urging the public to get booster shots or to make sure they're fully vaccinated as soon as possible, as well as encouraging people to wear masks at indoor gatherings where they may not know the vaccination status of others in attendance. But according to Scott Gottlieb, MD, former commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), certain types of masks may not protect you as well against the Omicron variant as others.
During an appearance on CBS's Face the Nation on Dec. 5, Gottlieb was asked whether a recent anime convention in New York City that may have become one of the earliest superspreader events for Omicron in the U.S. was proof Omicron could spread more easily. He explained that anecdotal evidence would be difficult to use in making that case, especially since entry to the convention only required one dose of vaccine. But he also said one other protective measure could've played a factor.
"We don't know the quality of the masks that people were wearing," he pointed out. "We have to presume most of them were cloth masks, which aren't going to provide a very high degree of protection against something that's airborne like this."
Gottlieb again cautioned that it was important not to draw too many conclusions from events such as the convention this early on. But he did warn that other recent events also raised concerns that the virus may be more transmissible than Delta.
"It's concerning when you see a single introduction into a congregate setting and 30 infections resulting from it or more, like we saw in Oslo," he said, referencing a recent Christmas party in the Norwegian capital that is believed to be the largest Omicron superspreader event outside of South Africa. "That does suggest something that's clearly airborne and looks more like measles than like the flu."
Gottlieb hasn't been alone in expressing concerns about the importance of using the correct type of face covering while the variant is circulating. During the same program, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, was also pressed by host Margaret Brennan about whether the public should be upgrading their masks as Omicron begins to spread.
"Well, what we've seen throughout the COVID pandemic is [that] better quality masks offer you better quality protection," Murthy explained. "You know, if you wear a cloth mask properly, then you can get a lot of protection. If you upgrade to a KN95 or an N95 in certain circumstances, that can give you even more protection."
While it may be a new variant, the arrival of Omicron in the U.S. has brought about a renewed sense of urgency from top officials to urge the public to take the tried and true preventive measures to protect themselves. In addition to getting vaccinated and receiving a booster shot, this also involves familiar tactics used since the early days of the pandemic.
"The things that we've gotten tired of doing, we need to keep doing, especially masking up in indoor places," Tom Frieden, MD, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tells NPR. "If people around you aren't wearing masks and you are older, or you have a weakened immune system, then you should consider upping your mask game and using an N95 mask."
Experts emphasize that a snug, tight fight against the face is critical for protecting yourself and others from the virus, which can make N95 and KN95 masks superior to cloth masks or even three-layer or surgical masks. Anyone in crowded indoor settings—especially travelers aboard a plane or public transportation—would significantly benefit from the extra protection afforded by the higher quality masks.
"Certainly what we've been seeing since the summertime is that if you are vaccinated or unvaccinated but gathered with people outside your household in indoor spaces, that wearing a mask is the recommended step to take to help reduce the potential for spread," Murthy advised during an interview with Fox News on Dec. 5. "It protects you, but it also protects the people around you."