Thursday, January 13, 2022

Coronavirus Update 1-13-22: The CDC is not updating its mask guidelines to better protect against Omicron … but it should

The CDC is not considering updating its current mask guidelines to recommend that everyone wear highly protective N95 or KN95 masks, contrary to earlier reports by the Washington Post.

In a White House briefing yesterday, Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, said that any mask is better than no mask, and that the CDC would not be changing any guidance regarding the type of maks that people should be wearing. Walensky did concede that the CDC's website needs to be refreshed to include information on the "different levels of protection different masks provide."

While any mask is technically better than no mask, there are vast differences in protection among the types of masks people wear. According to The Wall Street Journal, it takes only 15 minutes to transmit an infectious dose of Covid between two unmasked people. That time increases ten-fold to 2.5 hours if just one of the people is wearing an N95. It increases another 10 times to 25 hours if both people are wearing N95. (These times might be shorter for the more infectious Omicron variant.) 

Thus, if everyone wore N95s (or similarly protective masks), we could virtually eliminate the spread of this virus. 

What does this mean for your business? Maybe nothing. Most will continue to follow the CDC's lead and should require masks for all as long as local transmission remains substantial or high. But we should at least be having a discussion about what types of masks protect best and which offer little protection if any at all. And the evidence seems clear that (K)N95s are the best face-covering protection that we currently have. Please keep in mind, however, that if you, as an employer, mandate N95s for your employees, you will be required to follow OSHA's respiratory protection standard, which in and of itself might make cloth masks the standard minimum required mask in workplaces as with continue to navigate our way through Covid.