Two years into COVID-19, and I know more people than ever—in cities across the U.S.—who’ve been infected despite being vaccinated. Some have suggested the omicron variant may be nearly as transmissible as the measles, meaning just one infected person can make as many as 18 others ill.
In the immediate, many public health specialists say it’s time to reassess the quality of your go-to mask. If you’ve been casually wearing a cloth mask to get by in the sweltering summer months, you should consider switching to a full-blown N95 or KN95 mask—both of which can block 95% of COVID-size particles from reaching your nose and mouth.
But how does that advice help if we can’t source high-quality masks? Isn’t Amazon supposedly filled with counterfeits? And aren’t we taking N95s away from medical workers who need them? (That’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still claims, though experts beg to differ.)
As it turns out, at least for the time being, there isn’t a shortage of N95s. The U.S. currently has roughly 100 million N95 masks in stock. The key is getting your hands on a real one, and Project N95 is here to help. The nonprofit’s singular job is selling certified N95 and KN95 masks at the best price possible. In practice, that means you can score a pack of high-quality masks for about $1 apiece. And at this moment, there are plenty of options. You can pick your preferred shape, color, and whether you want the bands to go around your ears or the back of your head.
You really don’t need to feel bad for buying these masks! The executive director of Project N95 has said as much:
There's no shortage of N95s. Domestic N95 mfrs need LT contracts to create stability in production/forecasts.
— Anne Miller ???? (@crosscutanne) December 21, 2021
Do you always need to wear an N95-level mask during this pandemic? Maybe not, according to Joseph Allen, an associate professor and director of the healthy-buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He breaks down the math on how multiple mask wearers amplify their effectiveness. If one person wears a cloth mask, it might be 50% effective in blocking COVID-19 particles on its own. But when two people wear a cloth mask, the figure jumps to around 75%.
When the virus isn’t surging with such an effective variant, and you’re in a safer situation (with a controlled social circle, in a well-ventilated area, etc.) experts agree that cloth and other more casual masks might be fine. But in this moment, with omicron surging, it seems to be the time to upgrade to some of the best, available, inexpensive technology that we have.
And why not? Because don’t forget, N95 masks can be reused!