Most people are still wearing cloth masks. Here's why that's a problem with omicron – USA TODAY

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Your cloth face mask isn’t protecting you against the coronavirus variant omicron, health officials say. 
As common as cloth face masks have become, health experts say, they do little to prevent tiny virus particles from getting into your nose or mouth and aren’t effective against the new variant.
“Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,” says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech told NPR.
Health experts are urging the public to opt for three-ply surgical masks, KN95 masks or N95 masks, which offer more protection against the highly contagious variant. 
Omicron spreads more quickly and efficiently than other known coronavirus variants and is extremely transmissible – even through thick fabric face masks. Several countries, such as Germany and Austria, have surgical masks requirements in public.
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Reviewed:Where to buy N95 masks online
Should you be wearing an N95 mask? What to know and where to buy them online
The latest guidance:What to do if you test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed
So what do we need to know about which mask is most effective against omicron?
N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are made out of material with an electrostatic charge, which “actually pulls these particles in as they’re floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles,”  Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, told NPR.  
Researchers at Duke University conducted a study last year to see which mask was the most effective. The N95 masks were the most effective in blocking respiratory droplets – 99% to be exact. Second-best? Surgical masks.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said surgical masks are a great, more affordable option.
“We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask. You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone,” Wen told CNN.
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While cloth masks can filter large droplets, N95s can filter both large droplets and the smaller aerosols that may contain the airborne virus. N95s are also especially efficient, filtering out about 95% of airborne particles.  
Infectious disease expert Steven Gordon told Cleveland Clinic that all studies show omicron is the most easily transmissible coronavirus variant, and that’s why health experts urge a change in masks. Gordon added that while cloth masks help prevent the exhale of particles, it doesn’t do much to prevent inhaling particles, which is a problem with omicron.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges the public to save N95 masks for health care workers. However, it was only in the first several months of the pandemic when hospitals saw a shortage in N95 masks. Now it has “been many months since the supply of N95s (has been) an issue,” Wen said.
Should you be wearing an N95 mask? What to know and where to buy them online
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, is among experts who recommend upgraded masks: “If you’re in an indoor public setting, that’s where we recommend that you wear a well-fitted, high-quality mask. With omicron and how transmissible it is, I feel that we should all be moving to wearing a higher-quality, better mask.”
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital recommends children wear the white, duck-bill N95 masks because cloth masks “do not provide the same level of protection and should not be used.”
The white duck-bill N-95 mask comes in two sizes, small and regular, and is shaped outwardly like a duck’s mouth. The design was created to offer more breathability. 
The first step is to turn to the CDC and analyze its charts of N95 and KN95 masks that the agency has tested, including the make, model number and filtration efficiency. Websites such as Fakespot help consumers weed out authentic products from counterfeits, including real and fake N95 masks. 
If you’re purchasing a mask from Amazon, be wary of reviews in which people say they received the mask free, because that could persuade them to leave a positive review, The New York Times cautions. The Times also recommends purchasing masks through verified manufacturers such as DemeTech in Miami and Prestige Ameritech in Texas.
Certain manufactures will include a barcode consumers can scan to ensure they’re buying the real product. Powecom KN95 masks have a barcode that’s scannable using a phone, so whether you purchase through the website or a third party, you can verify the product.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda


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