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As experts advise better masks to protect against Omicron, government is starting to provide them

Ray Rizik with Cambridge Public Schools, handed out KN95 masks at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School as a delivery truck arrived. Schools across Massachusetts are receiving KN95 masks from the state for all employees.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts has sent more than 6 million KN95 masks to teachers and school staff. Connecticut plans to distribute 6 million N95 masks — enough for every resident who wants one. And in the Boston area, certain MBTA stations have been providing free KN95 masks for weeks.

As the nation battles this COVID-19 surge, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, public health experts say it’s crucial for people to ditch fabric face coverings in favor of high-quality, well-fitting masks. And in some parts of New England, government officials are beginning to provide them by the millions.

Massachusetts and other states continue to record record-high case counts, and testing remains limited, making it all the more essential for people to take every precaution, experts said. That includes the familiar advice: Wear a good mask in public places and while spending time with individuals outside their household. But with Omicron now representing the majority of cases in the country, experts say it’s best to wear N95, KN95, or KF94 masks, which do a better job of protecting wearers from infection.

N95, KN95, and KF94 respirators are made of material with an electrostatic charge, so they block aerosol particles more effectively than masks made of cloth. Surgical masks, while also made of material with the charge, tend to fit more loosely than the three recommended respirators, making them less effective, experts said. KN95s are typically more comfortable than N95s, but experts warn that there are many counterfeit KN95s on the market. The numbers indicate how efficiently the masks filter out particles: For the N95, for example, it’s at least 95 percent.

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A transit employee holds a box of masks in the lobby of the Ashmont Red Line station on June 22, 2020.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Those masks are far more affordable and accessible now than they were in the early days of the pandemic, doctors said. Still, “it would be fantastic” to see more public officials handing them out, said Dr. Davidson Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and expert in infectious disease.

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“If the government were able to do that, especially targeting low-income neighborhoods or older people and others who have difficulty accessing masks or being able to afford them, that would be a great service,” Hamer added.

Massachusetts reported more than 21,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday — shattering the state’s daily record again with roughly 6,000 more cases than on Wednesday. The state also recorded 36 new deaths from the virus.

As case counts continue to climb, “we should be wearing well-fitting, snugly fitting masks” that are “double or triple layer,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said Thursday at City Hall.

Multilayered cloth masks that seemed adequate to reduce transmission earlier in the pandemic are less effective against Omicron, doctors said.

“N95 masks are better than just regular surgical masks; surgical masks are better than cloth masks,” said Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and dean at Boston University School of Public Health.

Fit is the most important factor, said Dr. Helen Boucher, interim dean of Tufts University School of Medicine — and even “a cloth mask is better than no mask,” though high-filtration respirators are ideal.

Double-masking is a good option for those who don’t have ready access to N95, KN95, or KF94 masks, experts said.

And people shouldn’t reuse their masks too many times. Boucher said surgical masks or cloth masks should be used for just one day before being thoroughly washed or tossed out.

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For higher-quality medical masks such as N95s or KN95s, the recommendation for health care workers is that they are worn just once. But experts acknowledged that might not be practical for those who don’t work in clinical settings, given the expense of those masks.

“My advice to regular people, to all of us living our lives outside a hospital setting, is: If you’re going to wear an N95, be very careful putting it on and taking it off, and avoid reuse if possible,” Boucher said.

Anne Miller, executive director of the personal protective equipment clearinghouse Project N95, said people who don’t work in health care can make N95 masks last longer by instituting a rotation. Wear one N95 mask on Monday, she suggested, then leave it in a brown paper bag to decontaminate until the following Monday. In that way, a single N95 mask could be used for as many as 40 hours of wear, Miller said.

Any mask should be replaced immediately if it becomes wet or visibly dirty, experts said.

Earlier this year, a number of European countries made medical-grade face masks mandatory in public places. Experts said requiring certain types of masks might not be practical in the United States if the government doesn’t provide them.

While Governor Charlie Baker has resisted calls to issue a statewide mask mandate of any kind, many municipalities have imposed them. In Boston, masks are required in all public indoor spaces. City officials said more than 2,000 boxes of free surgical masks have been distributed at mass vaccination sites in Boston, an effort to ensure that residents can access them despite any financial barriers.

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In Connecticut, state officials are distributing high-quality masks in recognition of the current conditions.

“It is most important to wear any mask both in public spaces and when interacting in close contact with individuals outside of your household, but an N95 mask will provide better protection,” Dr. Manisha Juthani, Connecticut’s public health commissioner, said in a statement. For that reason, she added, “we are distributing enough N95 masks for any Connecticut resident that would like one.”

Asked Thursday whether he would consider an effort similar to Connecticut’s, Baker did not directly answer, but touted previous efforts as well as the state’s investment in N95 manufacturing.

“We have distributed millions of masks to people already and we continue to talk to people about where we can make that best available,” Baker said. “We are, again, one of the only states in the country that actually created with our colleagues here in Massachusetts an N95 manufacturing facility that is completely domestic with respect to its entire supply chain, because we didn’t want to ever be in a situation where we wouldn’t be able to access PPE on behalf of people here in the Commonwealth.”

State education officials said millions of KN95 masks were distributed earlier this month, enough to provide one mask per day for all public school educators and staff, including bus drivers. The state is also sending 200,000 at-home rapid antigen tests to school districts so that school staff and educators can test themselves before returning to the classroom after the holidays. That’s just one of many efforts by state and city leaders to provide much-needed rapid tests.

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Fortunately, N95 masks and other high-quality alternatives are much more affordable and accessible than they were at earlier stages of the pandemic. Miller said people can buy N95s for as little as 60 or 75 cents each, including through her organization’s website. She cautioned that it’s important for customers to ensure the masks they buy are authentic.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff. Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.