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INDIANAPOLIS — Local doctors and health experts say some Hoosiers may want to upgrade their masks to minimize their risk of COVID-19 infection.

Daily COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations continue to climb in Indiana and Dr. Graham Carlos, Executive Medical Director at Eskenazi Health, said that is likely due to the emerging omicron variant.

“The transmissibility [of Omicron] is between three and four,” said Dr. Carlos. “Making it twice as contagious as Delta and maybe three times as contagious as the original [COVID-19] strain.”

With this in mind, health experts from Eskenazi Health, Regenstrief Institute, and IUPUI’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health agree – Hoosiers should be wearing masks more frequently.

“At this point, if you leave your house you should assume you might encounter someone with COVID,” said Shandy Dearth, Director of the Center for Public Health Practice at IU Fairbanks School of Public Health.

Dearth said not all masks are created equal – some are more likely to allow droplets and particles to pass through.

“The N95 can filter out 95% of the small particles that we’re worried about,” said Dearth. “The cloth masks are somewhere in the 30-40% range and so there’s a big difference there.”

According to Dearth and Dr. Carlos, cloth masks provide the least amount of protection. They said further up the list are surgical masks or hand-sewn masks with a filter insert. Still, both experts agree, KN95s and N95s are really the gold standard.

“I would not show up to the ICU wearing a cloth mask, for example,” said Dr. Carlos.

N95 masks are the only masks Dr. Carlos wears when he enters Eskenazi’s Intensive Care Units each day. He said they are crucial to frontline workers battling this pandemic, but they are not absolutely necessary for everyone.

“I don’t think everybody needs to be out wearing N95 masks. I think it depends on your context,” said Dr. Carlos. “So if you’re going to take a flight, that’d be one where I’d probably wear one. If my wife was sick and needed chemo and I didn’t want to get Omicron, I’d probably wear one even to the grocery store. So you just have to consider your own personal context and take it from there.”

Dr. Carlos said if the average, healthy Hoosier does not have an N95, that is okay. He said standard masks still do some good and are certainly better than nothing at all.

“We are no longer in a shortage [of N95 masks] for hospitals and systems,” said Dr. Carlos. “So you’re not hurting hospitals or myself by picking those up for yourself. You’re actually helping me by keeping yourself safe.”

“At this point in the pandemic, we’ve got plenty of supply,” said Dearth. “I looked on Amazon right before this meeting and you can actually find [N95s] and get those shipped to your house overnight or tomorrow.”

Dearth also explained the difference between both N95 and KN95 masks. She said N95s are certified in the U.S., while the KN95 is certified in China. Outside of this difference, Dearth said N95s and KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.

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