Masks back on: But this time, colleges are demanding KN95 and above

In guidance to students and employees, institutions say cloth masks won’t cut it as omicron surges through U.S.
By: | January 10, 2022
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In a quest to maintain in-person learning to start 2022, many colleges and universities have upgraded their COVID-19 policies and enhanced their mask recommendations and requirements. Most notable in their letters to students, staff and faculty have been pleas to use better face coverings—namely KN95s, KF94s, N95s or N99s.

College leaders are joining public health officials in the acceptance that cloth masks—even those that have more than one layer—are not effective. Studies from Duke University, the University of Minnesota and Yale University show a massive difference in times of protection from “charged” masks to cloth.

KN95s might not meet the standards of the U.S.-backed N95s or N99s, but experts say they can be nearly as effective, more comfortable, less expensive and highly form-fitting. Their popularity has exploded, with distributors saying they are selling three times as many over the past month.

Ohio University, which has indoor and transportation mask mandates in place, is one of the many institutions requiring upgraded masks, even those without the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health standard. The University of Southern California and North Carolina Central University also have shifted to those higher standards, with USC officials saying at minimum that surgical masks be worn.

“Face shields, bandanas, neck gaiters, scarves, turtleneck collars, masks with valves, and balaclavas/ski masks are not acceptable,” Ohio University’s guidance states. “KN95, N95, KF94 or three-ply surgical masks are preferred. Cloth and handmade face coverings are discouraged. Double masking with a surgical mask is recommended for those using cloth and handmade masks.”

The University of Maryland required students to have KN95 masks during finals week last year. And Cornell University, which won’t see students return to face-to-face instruction until at least Feb. 4, also noted that cloth just won’t cut it on campus this semester. “Along with vaccination and boosters, masks remain a critical part of reducing the spread of the virus,” university officials wrote to their community. “All faculty, staff and students must comply with the university’s masking policy, utilizing high-quality masks, worn correctly. Evolving guidance recommends N95/KN95 as the most effective to prevent Omicron. Cloth masks on their own no longer meet Cornell standards for protection.”

According to the study done by University of Minnesota researchers, it takes around 20 minutes before a person with a cloth mask can be infected by another person not wearing a mask. That time jumps to two and half hours for those properly wearing N95 masks or similar alternatives. It is important that as institutions are purchasing KN95s or KN94s for distribution that they are meeting standards they claim, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that 60% of those masks tested by NIOSH did not. Surgical masks don’t offer much more protection—10 minutes more—than cloth, according to the UM study.

Despite their immense popularity recently and concerns early in the pandemic about availability, supply has been good for both N95 and their alternatives. That has prompted several universities to not only require them but promise to distribute them as well.

Chancellor Venkat Reddy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs says his campus will still have surgical masks available but will also “evaluate the availability of KN95 masks.” Until that happens, they are recommending double masking in indoor settings. Cornell also has promised to “provide high-quality (e.g., N95, KN95) masks to campus community members who need them.”

Virginia Tech University is taking distribution a step further by launching a centralized process starting today that will include both KN95s and surgical masks. Campus departments will be able to place an order in the morning for packs of 10 KN95s or packs of 50 surgical masks that can be procured the next business day. University funds are being utilized to cover costs ($13.75 for KN95s and $37.66 for surgical masks).