Campus News

Do you need a different mask to fight omicron?

A tight fit around your nose, cheeks and chin is more crucial than the type of mask, says a UNC Health expert.

Pile of masks.
(Photo by Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Editor’s note: This article was updated midday on Jan. 10 to reflect the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We are now in the midst of another surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the new omicron variant. The variant appears to be significantly more contagious than the delta variant, so you may be wondering if you need to upgrade or change the type of mask you’re wearing.

UNC Health asked Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention.

The bottom line is this: No matter what type of mask you wear, the fit of your mask is crucial — you’ll want to minimize gaps around your nose, cheeks and chin.

“The way your mask fits your face is the most important factor in determining how effective it is,” Sickbert-Bennett says. “You should have a nice fit across the bridge of your nose and underneath your eyes. If you wear glasses with your mask on and you’re getting a lot of fog on your glasses, that’s a sign that it’s not fitting very well.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a tight fit, with the least air leaking from around the mask, is key to keeping virus droplets out. To that end, experts recommend choosing a mask with a nose wire or wearing a mask fitter or brace that goes over the mask to hold it against the face.

How to make your mask fit better

There are ways to make your masks fit better, and that really does make a difference. For example, simple things like the “knot and tuck” technique can optimize fit.

Layering a surgical mask under a cloth mask can improve your protection, as can wearing a cloth mask with multiple layers.

“The best method is having a surgical ear-loop style mask underneath and then a cloth one over top because they each fit your face a little differently, so they work together. The underneath layer of the ear-loop mask is like a really nice filter,” Sickbert-Bennett says. “Then having a cloth mask over it, or even a gaiter over it, helps that surgical mask fit to your face better.”

Improving the fit has been shown to increase the effectiveness of the mask up to 20%, Sickbert-Bennett says.

The best protection is for everyone to wear a mask

It is important to note that recent data has shown that much of the spread of the omicron variant has been between unmasked individuals, so the best protection is for everyone to simply wear a mask.

“When masks are consistently worn, then transmission is halted. The science is clear on that, and as a society, that’s going to be our most important way to get transmission to stop,” Sickbert-Bennett says.

Make sure you get vaccinated — and boosted, if eligible

There is already good evidence from laboratory studies and reports coming from places first hit by omicron that vaccines do protect against infection and severe disease due to this variant.

Booster shots have been shown to be particularly helpful; researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital published a new study, not yet peer-reviewed, that shows mRNA booster shots are highly effective at neutralizing omicron (that’s Pfizer and Moderna). They found that the blood from people who had the original shots but had not been boosted had less protection against the virus.

The methods we’ve used since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to help prevent COVID-19 will still help us now. That means mask-wearing inside and avoiding crowded events.

Emily Sickbert-BennetEmily Sickbert-Bennett is director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention, associate professor of infectious diseases in the division of infectious diseases at the UNC School of Medicine, adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and administrative director of the UNC Medical Center Antimicrobial Stewardship Program.

Read more stories from UNC Health.