As Covid-19 case numbers surge, some universities have decided cloth masks aren’t cutting it. Three institutions have announced they’ll require more-protective masks to be worn on campus to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
“Due to the unprecedented transmissibility of this new variant, we must pay particular attention to wearing properly fitted KN95 or N95 masks at all times while indoors,” the university’s leaders said in a statement.
The university’s infectious-disease experts are not just worried about student exposure to the virus from sick patients in clinical settings. Julio Figueroa, chief of infectious diseases in the school of medicine, said the campuswide policy was enacted to mitigate spread within the campus community.
“It’s not clinical people that are bringing it in from the hospital to the campus, it’s people going and doing their thing out and about who are getting infected and bringing it into campus,” Figueroa said.
He added that cloth and surgical masks, used heavily in mitigating the spread of previous variants of Covid-19, were less effective in curbing the spread of the Omicron variant.
“With Omicron it appears that the contagion plus the aerosol aspect is very similar to measles and therefore requires this higher-level mask,” he said.
The university has added KN95 distribution sites across the campus, where individuals can pick up five masks and instructions on how to use them. The masks are meant to be used over a 10-day period, according to the university website.
The University of Maryland at Baltimore announced a similar policy update in December, requiring faculty, students, and staff to wear a KN95 mask or equivalent while indoors or at an off-campus location occupied by campus community members regardless of vaccination status.
Jon Kucskar, special assistant to the president and head of the university’s Covid-recovery task force, said experts from their Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health advised them to make the move.
“As Omicron spread, what we realized was that the quality of the KN95 masks keeps the wearer more safe,” he said.
In the spring semester, the University of Southern California will require students, faculty, and staff to wear surgical or N95 masks on campus, according to the Daily Trojan, the university’s student-run newspaper.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say N95 masks and KN95 masks, commonly made and used in China, may be preferred in situations that require prolonged close contact between people who don’t live in the same household or those at increased risk for severe illness if they contract Covid-19. A shortage of N95 masks at the beginning of the pandemic led the CDC to encourage the use of cloth and surgical masks, prioritizing the fitted alternative for health-care workers.