Cloth face coverings are less effective at protecting against COVID-19 than surgical masks and respirators, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an updated guidance on Friday.
The agency urged Americans to wear N95 or KN95 masks — so named because they filter out 95 percent of airborne particles — to slow the spread of the virus.
Those kinds of masks provide more protection than face coverings made of “loosely woven cloth,” the CDC said.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.”
The N95s and KN95s been previously prioritized for healthcare workers, but the agency said there is no longer a supply shortage concern.
This marks the CDC’s first update on facial coverings since last September – before the worldwide Omicron variant surge – when the agency urged the use of the disposable N95 face coverings if ample supplies were available.
The respirators are encouraged for those visiting the elderly or immunocompromised, those caring for someone sick with the virus, those traveling on planes or public transportation or when social distancing is not possible.
If a respirator face covering is not available, the CDC recommended wearing a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask.
Officials said any face covering will be effective as long as it fits correctly and comfortably and properly worn.
“Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask,” Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The CDC also said “surgical N95s” are a specific type of respirator that should be reserved for healthcare settings, such as in an operating room, and are not typically available to the public.
President Biden on Thursday announced that his administration was working to make “high-quality masks,” including N95s, available for free for Americans. More details are to be announced next week.
Biden told reporters that “next week we will announce … how we are making high-quality masks available to the American people for free. I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it.”
The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said.