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Commuters cross the Adams Street bridge outside Union Station in Chicago during the morning rush on Dec. 21, 2021.
Commuters cross the Adams Street bridge outside Union Station in Chicago during the morning rush on Dec. 21, 2021. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — As COVID-19 numbers are making social situations more precarious because of the omicron variant — new cases in the U.S. have soared to their highest level on record at over 265,000 per day on average — infectious disease physicians are recommending doubling down on precautions such as masking. (A new Cook County mandate takes effect Jan. 3.)

Dr. Monica Mercon, infectious disease physician for Cook County Health, said people should be doubling down on known measures of protection — vaccinations, boosters, masking, testing and distancing.

“These are the most important ways of protection, and at this point when we are fighting omicron, we just need to think of it as Swiss cheese — layering each piece to fill one hole to cover the other one so you’re fully protected,” she said.

“No one isolated item is perfect. The vaccine is not perfect, masks, isolated are not perfect. And just testing is not perfect. We need to layer and double down on our measures. We have more contagious strains of the virus. It’s not a time to relax. The masks work and they work because they protect other people from the virus as we breathe out and they protect us from the virus in the air.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on how to wear masks have remained consistent, and Mercon and Dr. John Segreti, medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center reiterate the hows when it comes to mask selection, cleaning and protecting yourself with masking.

Both professionals say a proper mask fit means no gaps between mask and face, snug fit against the sides of the face, with mask covering nose and mouth. While it should be comfortable enough to breathe through, each mask needs to have layers of material that are tightly woven. According to Mercon, the way to test that is by putting the mask against the light and if light doesn’t pass through, then the mask will protect.

“It’s important to be well-fitted. Sometimes people use double masking, like a surgical mask under a cloth mask, that way the surgical mask will adhere to your face and there will be no gaps,” she said. “The double mask recommendation is more for fitting than for layers of protection.”

Segreti says sometimes people feel a false sense of security by putting on an KN95 mask, but if it doesn’t fit correctly, it’s not going to necessarily protect you. He said facial hair often gets in the way of a proper fit for masks. Segreti added that gaiters and bandannas are not as good as masks. Both don’t recommend masks with vents.

“I don’t recommend that KN95s (be used) for the general public because in health care situations and in industrial situations, KN95s have to be fit tested, a fairly rigorous process,” Segreti said. “We find that maybe 5% to 10% of people, even without facial hair, can’t find an KN95 that fits them. A regular procedure surgical mask is fine. KN95s ... some people find them more comfortable. But it doesn’t necessarily give you a lot more protection than a well-fitting surgical mask.”

As for duration of use when it comes to masks in the time of omicron, both physicians say if disposable masks are soiled, wet or torn after usage, throw them in the trash. Cloth masks need to be washed after usage. And if a disposable mask is not torn, wet or soiled after being used for a short period of time, it can be reused, if folded and put in a plastic bag when not in usage.

“Masks are mainly for what we call source control. So, the person who’s infected doesn’t infect other people. We’re also finding that it offers some element of protection for the person who’s wearing the mask, even if they’re not infected. So, if an infected person and a noninfected person are both wearing masks, correctly, the chance of transmission is almost zero,” Segreti said. “Nothing is 100% but they will significantly decrease the transmission, especially if you’re the one that’s infected.”

Mecron mentions that masks should still be worn under winter wear such as scarves and winter gear.

“We are in a setting of high transmission,” she said. “We really need, at this point, to be using any kind of mitigation we have available out there. Even if you’re tired of doing all of these things. We should still do this.”

No one knows why omicron is more contagious than other variants — a more efficient virus so less virus needed to become infected — maybe it’s able to bind better to its target sites than previous variants.

“It doesn’t matter which strain of the virus, it depends on the correct use of the mask, the mask needs to be over the nose and the mouth because when you breathe both the nose and the mouth can breathe out the virus or breathe in the virus if you’re around somebody who is contagious,” Mercon said.

Segreti agrees.

“There’s nothing about omicron that makes it more likely to avoid someone’s mask. If you wear the right mask, and you wear it correctly, it works just as well against omicron as it does against any other variants,” he said.

The doctors aren’t advising against New Year’s celebrations, but they say if it’s not with immediate family, a mask should be worn as much as possible. Avoid crowded areas that are poorly ventilated with people you don’t know. A smaller group of people that you know are vaccinated is safer. It’s not entirely zero risk, but it’s safer.

“What’s most important is being vaccinated and boosted,” Mercon said. “Remember the layers of intervention that we need to continue and if people need to gather they are vaccinated, using the mask, and using a rapid test at home before going to the party, that would be ideal.”

©2021 Chicago Tribune.

Visit at chicagotribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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