The highly transmissible Omicron variant has experts conflicted on mask guidelines. Here's what you need to know about the safest options for your family.
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After two years of the pandemic, most Americans have stocked up on face masks to help protect their families from COVID-19 infection, but recommendations continue to shift as highly transmissible new variants cause cases to surge. Parents are wondering: Should my family wear masks? What kind of mask offers the best protection? Do we need to continue wearing masks if we're vaccinated?

The spread of the Delta and Omicron variants helped cement the latest mask guidance from the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Masks are recommended for everyone 2 years and older in most cases.

Essentially, COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to prevent severe illness and death from these variants. But new research suggests that vaccinated people might be able to spread the virus, and increasing numbers of breakthrough infections have also been reported.

What's most, studies have shown that widely popular cloth masks might not be as effective against Omicron, and some experts recommend using surgical masks or respirators (like KN95s and N95s) instead. The CDC still exerts that "any mask is better than no mask," adding that a highly protective mask or respirator can be worn in "certain higher risk situations, or by some people at increased risk for severe disease."

"Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection," says the organization. When used properly, N95 masks filter out 95 percent of all airborne particles, including those that cause COVID-19 infection.

In an effort to provide better masks to Americans, the White House announced that it's providing 400 million free N95 masks, which will be available at community health centers and pharmacies nationwide.

Keep reading to learn the latest mask rules and recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Masks Guidelines for Vaccinated People

You're considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, whether it's Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson. The CDC now recommends that vaccinated individuals mask "indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission." (You can check on the CDC website). Individuals might also choose to mask "if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated."

What's more, vaccinated people must continue wearing masks on public transportation (planes, trains, buses, etc.), in U.S. transportation hubs, and in health care settings. The CDC says that students, teachers, and school staff should wear masks in grades K through 12—regardless of vaccination status or community transmission.

If you have a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, wear a mask whenever you interact with someone—even members of your household. For example, you should wear it "when you are sharing a room, in a vehicle, visiting the doctor, or going to the grocery store," says Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D., senior core faculty member for Walden University's Master of Public Health program.

And while isolation and quarantine time has been shortened, the CDC still recommends that individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 wear a mask around others for at least five days following isolation or quarantine.

Mask Guidelines for Unvaccinated People

Per the CDC guidelines, unvaccinated people should still follow all social distancing and mask protocols. Masks not only protect those around you from COVID-19 infection, they can actually help to protect you.

"Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings," according to the CDC. "The spread of COVID-19 can be reduced when masks are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses that this mask guidance applies to anyone over age 2. Younger babies should never wear masks because of suffocation risks; they can't let you know if they're struggling to breathe.

Mask Mandates at State and Local Levels

Despite mask recommendations by the CDC, state and local governments can decide for themselves whether to change their guidelines. Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should always follow the mandates issued by their lawmakers.

Should I Wear Masks in Stores?

Should you wear a mask in your local salon or coffee shop? What about big-box retailers like Target or Walmart? As it turns out, business are free to make their own rules, but they must adhere to local and state guidelines. All people, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, should follow rules set forth by restaurants, salons, stores, etc. It's always smart to have your mask on hand, so if you're ever confronted with a mask mandate, you'll be prepared. (Need some help remembering a mask? Consider buying a handy face mask chain so you always have your mask on your body.)

Should My Child Wear a Mask to School?

The CDC recommends that schools return to in-person learning. However, the organization urges that schools should still require "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status." Other layered prevention strategies like social distancing should also be implemented.

While it's true that kids generally have mild symptoms, severe illness and death have been reported on rare occasions. Kids can also contract COVID-19 at school and spread it to other high-risk individuals.

That said, while the CDC recommends obligatory masks in academic settings, school boards can make the decision themselves (as long as the state doesn't have an indoor mask mandate).

How to Wear a Face Mask Properly

Face masks work by containing droplets that might be contaminated with COVID-19, which can be released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or breaths. Masks also protect against "airborne particles" that stick around after coughing, sneezing, talking, or exhaling. 

Wearing face masks improperly may actually increase your risk of the coronavirus, according to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. That's because infected particles could seep through the edges if you adjust the mask or take it off improperly. Here is the proper way to use one.

1. Choose the right mask. The CDC recommends wearing "a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection." Some health experts say cloth masks might be nixed before long and say that families should reassess what they're using—especially if they've had the same masks since March 2020. In opposition to the CDC, some experts are recommending the use of KN95 or N95 masks in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In an October 2020 study, the CDC did note that "the filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly."

2. Wash your hands. According to Dr. Ferraro, you should wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can also use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in a pinch.

3. Put on the mask. "Cover your mouth and nose with the mask and pull the straps over the back of your head," says Dr. Ferraro. "Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask."

4. Don't fidget with it. When wearing the mask, you should avoid touching your face and the mask, or else you risk letting infected particles get inside. 

5. Replace when needed. Replace the mask when it gets damp and do not reuse single-use masks. "To remove the mask, take it off from behind, discard it immediately in a closed trash can, and clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer," says Dr. Ferraro. You can also wash cloth masks, if they're made for reuse.

The Bottom Line

Per CDC guidelines, vaccinated individuals should wear masks indoors in areas "of substantial or high transmission." Unvaccinated people should still wear masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult.