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Masks prevent spread of omicron — but only if worn properly. Here's how

Vaccination and masking remain the safest ways to prevent all forms of COVID-19. (Getty Images)
Vaccination and masking remain the safest ways to prevent all forms of COVID-19. (Getty Images)

As omicron-driven cases of COVID-19 decline in South Africa, the Biden administration is lifting restrictions on travelers from eight southern African countries. The change will go into effect on New Year’s Eve.

This, as researchers in the United Kingdom released a study showing that hospitalizations are up to 70% less likely for those infected with omicron compared with other forms of COVID-19 — though health officials call the results preliminary.

What is known with certainty is that vaccination and masking are the safest ways to prevent COVID-19. But epidemiologists warn that when it comes to preventing omicron, all masks are not equal.

Epidemiologist and infectious disease expert Saskia Popescu says the community spread of omicron is "more infectious" and "spreads more efficiently and effectively between people" than other variants.

That's why mask fit and filtration is more important than ever, she says.

A simple cloth mask might not be providing enough protection, she says, because the material is thin. Experts recommend using N95s, FFP2s and KN95s. Popescu says to check those masks against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines to make sure it isn't counterfeit.

Some cloth masks provide a great fit — which means you're touching and adjusting it less, she says. You can still wear those cloth masks, but Popescu says to double it up with a surgical mask or add in an extra filter.

Consider eye protection if you're in a crowded setting and bilateral masking — when you and those around you are masked — isn't happening. Primary transmission still happens through the nose and mouth, she notes, but since COVID-19 is a respiratory pathogen, eyes can be a "point of vulnerability" in certain situations.

For example, she says experts encourage health care workers to wear eye protection when they tend to unmasked patients.

"But if you’re around people who are also masked," she says, "I’m less concerned about eye protection."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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