St. Louis Firefighter Bob Pappageorge places a N95 mask on his face during a training session in St. Louis on Wednesday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 15 (UPI) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance to encourage Americans to use the best-fitting mask possible to limit the spread of COVID-19.
While the guidelines stopped short of recommending N95 or KN95 respirators, it dropped its language indicating concern about possible shortages of the face coverings. In the early days of the pandemic, public health officials feared a shortage in such masks typically used by healthcare workers.
In its latest update Friday, the CDC "clarified that people can choose respirators such as N95s and KN95s, including removing concerns related to supply shortages for N95s."
Still, the CDC advised that specifically labeled "surgical" N95 respirators, "a special subtype of N95 respirators that provide additional protection against hazards present during medical procedures, such as blood splatter," be reserved for healthcare personnel.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health approves the N95 "filtering facepiece respirators" which is the "most widely available," along with other types of respirators, the CDC said in the update.
"When worn consistently and properly, they provide the highest level of protection from particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19," the CDC said. "Additionally, they contain your respiratory droplets and particles so you don't expose others."
The NIOSH-approved respirators filter at least 95% of particles in the air when fitted properly, the CDC noted.
Still, the CDC said in the update not to wear NIOSH-approved respirators "if it is hard to breathe while wearing them." It also said they should not be worn "if they are wet or dirty" or along "with other masks or respirators."
The NIOSH-approved respirators may be available in smaller sizes, but they are designed for use by adults and have not been tested for broad use in children, the CDC said, adding that masks and respirators should not be worn by children younger than 2.
The CDC said that well-fitting surgical masks and KN95s offer more protection than cloth masks, but warned of some "poor quality" KN95 respirators, which did not meet the level of protection indicated.
"About 60% of KN95 respirators NIOSH evaluated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the requirements that they intended to meet," the CDC noted.
The CDC maintained its emphasis on proper fit over the nose, mouth and chin to prevent leaks, and said wearing two masks, a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask may help to provide a better fit and extra protection.
"Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask," the CDC said. "To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you wear consistently."
The updated mask guidance comes amid the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spurring record levels of infections and hospitalizations.
The United States recorded a seven-day moving average of 794,000 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, the most recent day for which is available. That's up from 791,000 a week prior and 193,000 a month prior.
There were nearly 2,000 deaths Thursday and a seven-day average of about 20,000 hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
Since the pandemic began, there have been over 64 million cases, and 844,841 deaths in the United States, and 66.9% of the U.S. population age 5 and older has been fully vaccinated.
Over 99% of counties in the United States are considered areas of high community transmission, according to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker.