CDC to weigh in soon on whether Americans should upgrade their masks

Health experts have long called for better masks in light of omicron.

January 12, 2022, 3:53 PM

After weeks of health experts urging Americans to upgrade their masks to protect against the omicron COVID-19 variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that it was planning to update its mask guidance to "best reflect the multiple options available to people and the different levels of protection they provide."

In a statement provided to ABC News on Wednesday, the agency said the goal is for Americans to have "the best and most updated information to choose what mask is right for them."

The move by the CDC would be the first significant update to its mask guidance since last July when it urged all Americans to return to wearing masks, after the delta variant proved so transmissible that research found even vaccinated people could transmit the virus.

While vaccinated people are considered infectious for a shorter period of time than someone who is unvaccinated, and they are considerably less likely to end up hospitalized, the CDC urged everyone to return to masking indoors to prevent community cases from rising.

Since the arrival of omicron, however, health experts have urged caution with the usual cloth masks and cities like Los Angeles and New York have already recommended mask upgrades to their residents.

CDC would not say how soon it planned to update its online guidance, although one administration official said the goal was by week’s end. The Washington Post first reported that CDC was considering the update to its guidance.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency's director, told reporters on Wednesday that the overall recommendation won't change that "any mask is better than no mask" and that a mask should fit well.

The best mask, she told reporters, is "the one you can keep on all day long that you can tolerate in public indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it," Walensky said.

"I recommend you get the highest quality mask that you can tolerate and that's available to you," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and President Joe Biden's senior medical adviser, told CNN on Tuesday.

PHOTO: Dr. Anthony Fauci before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing, Jan. 11, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants, Jan. 11, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Shawn Thew/AP

One problem with pushing higher grade masks is that they can be costly, harder to find and – in the case of surgical N95s – somewhat uncomfortable to wear. The CDC also warns customers against counterfeit masks that aren't as effective.

Prior to omicron, Walensky resisted a call for Americans to wear surgical N95 masks for the average American because the agency didn’t want to discourage people from wearing any mask.

Walensky did not wear an N95 mask while testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday. According to a spokesperson, she wore a disposable mask with a cloth mask on top "to ensure a tight seal." That would be in keeping with CDC's current guidance that suggests Americans could opt for two masks for increased protection.

To address the issue of limited supply, the Biden administration says it’s planning to help ramp up production of N95s to make them more available to Americans who want one. Dawn O’Connell, a top official at the Health and Human Services Department, said Tuesday that the government planned to sign a contract within the next month or so that would identify a provider to produce 140 million N95 masks a month.

There are already 737 million N95 masks in the strategic national stockpile available for medical workers.

White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday the White House was seriously considering making "high quality masks" available to all Americans, although he did not provide additional details.

ABC News reporter Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this report.

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