Experts call for N95s to become new masking standard to curb Omicron spread

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Published December 17, 2021 at 3:33 pm

TORONTO — Experts are calling for respirators, such as N95s, to become the new masking standard to curb the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr, who studies viruses in the air, says respirators offer far more protection than a surgical mask, both to the wearer and others around them.

Marr says the main difference comes down to fit — respirators are designed to form a seal around the face, while medical masks often leave gaps that allow virus particles to seep through.

Marr says she was shocked when she boarded a bus in Lake Louise, B.C., this week and was asked to take off her N95 respirator and put on a surgical mask, comparing the request to substituting a seatbelt with a piece of rope.

A number of Canadian social media users have reported running into similar policies at hospitals and other health-care settings.

Public Health Ontario updated its guidelines on Wednesday to allow health workers caring for patients who could have COVID-19 to use respirators in settings where surgical masks had previously been the standard.

The interim recommendations also say that N95s are an acceptable alternative to surgical masks for people visiting patient rooms and long-term care homes.

The agency said in an email that evidence published before the emergence of Omicron did not support the use of N95s over surgical masks to protect health workers against COVID-19. 

But until more is known about the new variant, “it is prudent to enhance all layers of protection,” the agency said.

University of Toronto infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said health authorities need to go further to encourage the use of N95 respirators across indoor public settings.

Furness said this campaign should include efforts to help Canadians find the type of respirator that best fits their face, likening the process to trying on jeans.

“That’s public education we desperately need,” he said. “The fact that people are on their own for this is a travesty.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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