Amid a rush of Thanksgiving travel, accelerating infection rates and no significant change in mobility data, "many Americans could take one simple step to protect themselves: Buy a better mask," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday.
"While there are still some shortages of medical masks, health-care workers have dedicated supply chains," Gottlieb wrote. "It’s time to revise the guidance to consumers."
N95 masks and their equivalents offer the best protection against the novel coronavirus, Gottlieb said. If used properly, they can filter out at least 95% of infectious particles. Equivalents include the KN95 from China and the FFP2 from Europe.
Surgical masks are the next best option, which could offer protection of about 60%, Gottlieb said – but quality matters. Many masks sold on Amazon say they are for dust and allergens but aren’t surgical masks. Real medical-procedure masks are cleared by the FDA and offer one of three levels of protection, with a level 2 or level 3 mask generally being best.
Finally, cloth masks are the least protective, Gottlieb said. If it is the only available option, it should be thick, snug-fitting and made of cotton-polyester blends, as these will generally offer more protection.
"But even a very good cloth mask may only be about 30% protective; scarf or bandanna, 10% or less," Gottlieb wrote.
While it may be more expensive to buy better quality masks, having a few available for high-risk settings can reduce transmission risks, he said. The Department of Homeland Security has also published online instructions for disinfecting and reusing N95 masks, which can extend their life.
"Slowing the current cycle of spread will be difficult," Gottlieb wrote. "But encouraging Americans to wear higher-quality masks is a simple step that might make a difference."