Do cloth masks provide adequate protection against COVID-19? An epidemiologist weights in

As the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads across Canada, some experts are urging Canadians to ditch the cloth masks and use surgical or N95 masks instead.

According to Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and the founder of EPI Research, studies have determined that the best protection is about both the filtration and fit of the mask.

She said when it comes to comparing cloth masks against surgical masks and N95s, there’s a big difference in both the amount of knowledge we have on the masks and the level of protection they provide.

Carr noted there is less information on cloth masks, because they come in such a wide variety of fabrics, densities, and layers.

“They just can’t possibly be tested. There’s actually no guidance from Health Canada on cloth masks,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

“We know very little about those except that they don’t tend to offer the most protection just because there’s so much inconsistency.”

When it comes to the typical surgical masks, Carr said they have “excellent” filtration with respect to particles, adding that these masks are mostly meant to block out droplets.

She noted that the issue with these masks comes down to fit, as they cover the nose, mouth, and chin, but often leave gaps at the side of the face.

“A tip for you – the way you’re going to know the best fit is when you inhale and exhale if that mask is moving with you, that’s telling you that you have the best seal, and it’s forcing your breath, you’re inhalation and exhalation to go through that filtered area,” Carr said.

As for KN95 masks, Carr said they are sturdier, have a better fit, and provide the highest level of protection.

“When I inhale and exhale…definitely my mask is moving in and out so that’s telling me it’s forcing my airway to go through this filtered space so I have the best protection in this mask,” she said.

– With files from CTV’s Renee Rodgers.

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