Expert Says Everyone Should Upgrade to a Medical-Grade Mask

Cloth masks may no longer cut it against variants

Photo: engin akyurt/Unsplash

More transmissible coronavirus variants are spreading, which means it’s time to up your mask game. Experts are increasingly calling on people to upgrade their masks in an effort to slow the spread of the new variants. While the reason for their increased transmissibility is not fully understood, it may be that fewer virus particles are required to infect someone. Opting for a better barrier is an easy way to increase your protection.

But which masks are best? In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Atul Gawande, MD, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and adviser on President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, said he hoped to see more people use medical-grade masks.

Responding to a question about the new variants, Gawande said, “I’m very concerned.” Avoiding an increase in hospitalizations, he continued, would require better treatments in addition to vaccines as well as improved prevention and mitigation strategies — including better masks.

“Number one, I would recommend that we move to medical-grade masks,” he said. “Cloth masks are difficult to keep over your nose because of the way they’re designed and fit.”

“Some of them are well designed so that they stay on your nose and fit you better, but the medical masks are inexpensive and able to [as well]. I would favor seeing those used more widely.”

Medical masks, also known as surgical masks, are single-use masks worn by health care workers for protection against certain respiratory diseases. You’ve likely seen them before (they are often white or blue), but they come in a wide variety, and some are better than others. According to the Food and Drug Administration, medical masks can “block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose” as well as block your own saliva and respiratory secretions from reaching other people. N95 masks, the “gold standard” of protection, are also considered medical-grade masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently doesn’t recommend either of these masks for general use “because they should be conserved for healthcare personnel.” The general population is recommended to wear cloth masks, but Gawande said he would like to see this change. The Biden administration’s national Covid-19 strategy includes invoking the Defense Production Act to boost the production of N95 masks in addition to other supplies needed to control the pandemic.

Last month, Robert Roy Britt wrote a comprehensive piece in Elemental on how to upgrade your mask, covering medical-grade masks and all other types. (Pro tip: Regardless of what type of mask you’re wearing, ensuring a good fit is critical.) Read it here:



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Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag


Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.