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It's time to upgrade to a KN95 or N95, but don’t throw your cloth masks away

A cloth mask and a KN95 mask.
Bri Kirkham
Texas Public Radio
A cloth mask and a KN95 mask.

You can read this story in Spanish by clicking here

The extremely contagious omicron variant has made contracting the coronavirus easier, even for people who are vaccinated and boosted.

Experts recently suggested high-quality masks are more critical than ever. Some have said cloth masks shouldn’t be worn at all at this point in the pandemic.

While there hasn’t been any direct studies on omicron and masks, Dr. Katelyn Jetelina said it’s “definitely time to upgrade masks.”

Jetelina is an epidemiologist and professor at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She also runs the Substack “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

“A N95 or KN95 will be the best at protecting against omicron,” she said. “Cloth masks may still work against omicron, but they didn’t work great before omicron.”

Still, a cloth mask is better than no mask. Jetelina recommends doubling up on them if a N95 isn’t available.

If you want to get more use out of your cloth masks — while being as safe as possible — you can wear them over N95s. If you ARE ready to part with your cloth face masks there are opportunities to responsibly keep them out of landfills.

Sustainable clothing companies like For Days will recycle clothing — including face cloths — if washed beforehand. “Take Back Bags” are $10, and can be filled and mailed to their facility. That money can then be used toward a credit to purchase clothing at their site.

Of course, disposable N95s present an even larger environmental challenge.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that N95 masks can be worn for “a prolonged period” before being discarded. Jetelina said she wouldn't wear an N95 more than three times.

It’s not recommended to recycle face masks in blue bins. Instead companies like Terracycle sell zero waste boxes to properly recycle used personal protection equipment. They’re costly at almost $200, so making N95s last as long as possible is recommended. Check with your local recycling providers to see what PPE programs might be available.

If you're having a hard time even finding KN95 masks, more online retailers are offering supplies at affordable rates. Nomad is a tech store focused on phone cases, chargers and watch bands. At the start of the pandemic they added KN95 masks and other safety supplies at reasonable prices to their website. A pack of 10 KN95s is $10.

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Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk