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Which mask protects best against COVID-19 and the delta, omicron variants?

Public health leaders say due to the increased contagiousness of the omicron variant, people should seek face coverings with more protection.

MAINE, USA — Maine's public health leaders are urging people to use masks with higher protection levels due to the increased contagiousness of the omicron variant.

During the Dec. 29, 2021, statewide COVID briefing, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said it might be time to "retire" cloth masks. 

On Wednesday, he clarified that neck gaiters and handkerchiefs are insufficient to protect people from spreading or catching the virus.

He said multi-ply cloth masks are effective and that surgical masks, commonly blue, are more effective due to the way they are made and woven to prevent droplets from passing through them.

Dr. Lori Banks, assistant professor of biology at Bates College in Lewiston, said KN95 and N95 masks block the highest amount of viral particles.

"That would be like your go-to if you can get a hold of those. Next would be the surgical masks, the little blue ones, which are single-use. And then, for some reason, if you can't get a hold of one of those two, I would double up on whatever else you have," Banks said.

She said surgical masks are intended to be "single-use" and should not be worn several days in a row.

"Particles within the mask start to break down, and those are designed to be single-use masks, and so it just doesn't have the integrity that it did for the ability that you need it for: to hold things away from your face," Banks said.

She said KN95 or N95 masks are also designed to be single-use, but they could be reused if disinfected with ultraviolet light.

The biggest issue for masks, which everyone encounters, is the breakdown of the material as people breathe into them.

"Masks, as you know, lose their efficiency once they become wet with moisture from the breath. That tends to happen quicker with the cloth masks. So they tend to lose their effectiveness earlier in the day," Dr. Gavin Ducker with Northern Light Health said. 

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