The CDC has recently updated its guidance on masks for the general public, now saying that people "may choose" to wear N95 masks because they offer the best protection against COVID-19.

Rutgers microbiologist Martin Blaser, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, agrees with the CDC. He said the omicron variant is extremely infectious but any mask is better than no mask at all.

The N95 masks are effective because the holes that the air goes through are smaller. When fitted properly, they can reduce the transmission by more than 95% of the tiny particles that carry the COVID-19 virus. Hence the name, N95.

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But Blaser said the N95 masks are also expensive and not comfortable. People can't wear them for many hours and have trouble breathing through them. These masks should be reserved for people in high-risk environments like health care workers.

For most people, in common everyday life, Blaser said the N95 is not a good solution. Instead, he recommends wearing a surgical mask. The pore size on a surgical mask is bigger so more particles can go through but because the masks are double-ply, the two layers work together to trap a sizable portion of the virus-spreading particles.

Blaser said these simple surgical masks are less expensive, widely available, comfortable, and can be used for hours at a time. The best part is that anyone can wear the surgical mask, including kids and the elderly.

"If you don't have a surgical mask and you have to be somewhere, then a cloth mask is better than nothing. But the holes in the cloth mask are bigger so it's not as effective as a surgical mask," Blaser said. Cloth masks still offer some good protection, but if the exposure is very high, there will be some actual transmission.

Cloth masks. (Janna Danilova)
Cloth masks. (Janna Danilova)
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Blaser said he understands pandemic fatigue and people wanting to put an end to mask-wearing. But he said taking off the masks will only prolong the pandemic. If everyone were to wear masks and social distance, the pandemic would not be advancing as quickly as it has been.

Everyone is tired of COVID, but people can't wish it away. That's not how it works.

"You know, I'm tired of stopping at red lights, but it's something you have to do so that it will be a safe place to drive," Blaser said.

While it's true the CDC has changed their advice and guidance regarding masks and many aspects of the COVID-19 virus, that's because the pandemic keeps changing. So it's important to keep up with practical advice that makes sense and people can use. He said the CDC are the best professionals in this area and they make guidelines based on the best data available to them.

Omicron impact on COVID cases in NJ

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third calendar year in New Jersey, some things have stayed true (hand-washing, advice to vaccinate) while others have evolved along with the latest variant (less monoclonal antibody treatments, new at-home anti-viral pills).