As coronavirus surges, it’s time to ditch cloth masks, experts say

As the highly contagious omicron variant explosively spreads and fills hospital beds across the region, health experts are urging Southern Californians to switch from cloth face coverings to more robust, tightly fitting masks that better protect them — and others — from the coronavirus.

“You have to mask better than before,” said epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine.

“In the face of the highly transmissible omicron, the cloth masks are pure theater,” Noymer said. “They don’t do anything.”

The push to upgrade face coverings comes after California officials extended the statewide indoor mask mandate that went into effect in mid-December for another month, until  Feb. 15.

In some cases, officials are making the switch to better masks a requirement.

  • Los Angeles County recently mandated that K-12 teachers in the county wear higher-grade masks.
  • USC students and professors must upgrade masks they wear on campus starting Tuesday, Jan. 18, according to a notice sent Wednesday, Jan. 5, by university officials.
  • Also on Wednesday, the LA County Department of Public Health ordered employers whose employees work indoors, in close contact with people, to provide tight-fitting medical-grade masks, surgical masks or respirators such as the N95 and KN95 for them by Monday, Jan. 17.
  • As K-12 schools in the nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, prepare to return to campus Tuesday, Jan. 11, masks will be required at all times. That’s outdoors as well as indoors. All district employees must wear surgical masks, or those of higher quality. LA Unified kids don’t face a mandate on mask type, but educators recommend that “all students wear well-fitting, non-cloth masks with a nose wire.
  • Chapman University announced Friday, Jan. 7, it is requiring everyone who goes on campus to wear a surgical mask or a higher-quality model, as in-person instruction returns Monday, Jan. 10. The university said it will make available disposable medical grade surgical masks and KN95 masks. The decision follows a petition signed by more than 300 students calling on the Orange County university to distribute free KN95 masks.

Senior Daniel McGreevy, who founded Chapman Mask Project and started the petition, said that “while we want to remain on campus, we want to do so safely, and the science is clear that better masks like KN95s will prevent the spread of COVID in a way that most other masks won’t.”

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