Omicron Has Changed Everything

by Connor Knapp

It has been two years since we first learned about SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Seemingly overnight, the world turned upside down, as scientists worked to understand the virus and find ways to protect us. Initially, hesitant and confused about the value of masks, we listened as the U.S. Surgeon General taught us how to make our own cloth masks, and why they protect us. Without enough high-quality personal protection equipment (PPE) available to health workers and first responders, making, selling, and wearing cloth masks evolved into a thriving industry.

If we have learned nothing else since the start of the pandemic, it is that the one thing we can always count on is change. As we’ve gone through the Greek alphabet of variants, the now highly infectious Omicron variant has once again changed what health experts are recommending regarding face coverings. While scientists first thought the virus spread through droplets caused by coughing and sneezing, they now know it is airborne, causing particles that contain the virus to build up in the air as we breathe and speak. This new knowledge has resulted in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asking us to consider trading the masks we have been wearing for respirators. To help understand why, Connor Knapp, founder and CEO at NY Pandemic Response/NYPPE, offers the following answers to questions many are asking.

Are respirators masks? While respirators look like masks, they are really PPE that prevent us from inhaling hazardous airborne contaminants. The standard for respirators is managed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). To meet the N95 U.S. standard, the filter must capture 95% of particles we breathe through filtering material that enhances particle collection.

Will a respirator protect me from those who are unmasked? Experts say we are safest when everyone around us, especially in an indoor or crowded setting, is wearing a well-fitting N95 respirator, or an alternative high quality KN94 or KN95 respirator-type mask.

Can I keep wearing cloth or surgical masks? Cloth and surgical masks are discouraged as they are they are poor filters of small airborne particles. While cloth masks are environmentally friendly as they are washable, they are not made to a particular standard. Additionally, respirators can be worn about 20 times before they should be replaced.

How should a respirator fit? A respirator should rest against your face without any gaps, especially around the nose and chin, and the facepiece should collapse slightly when you inhale.

How can I get N95 masks? The U.S. government is now giving 3 free adult-size N95 masks to anyone that needs them. You can pick up yours at community health centers or pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Sam’s Club will start distributing free masks in mid-February.

Connor Knapp is a health care business professional, former Buffalo Sabre, founder of Sterling Heart Care and Sterling Health Care Management, and founder/CEO at NY Pandemic Response/NYPPE.