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With the omicron variant spreading like wildfire, health experts say it's now more important than ever to upgrade your face mask. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a quality N95 or KN95 mask, but you do need to be careful where you buy that mask because there are fakes out there.
Anne Miller runs Project N95, a nonprofit stated at the beginning of the pandemic to help health care workers find N95 masks. Now, they sell to everyone.
"There's a lot of interest in getting better masks," she said. "Our mission is to give access to authentic, affordable, high-quality respiratory protection in the pandemic."
That's easier said than done. Miller says some counterfeit masks are being sold online, many manufactured in China. NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health — a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responsible for approving respiration masks — has examples of masks making fake claims on its website.
Part of the work Project N95 does is verify that the masks they sell are legitimate.
"Any product that is offered on Project N95, we have verified the authenticity of the supply chain," Miller said. "We know that it is a legitimate product that performs to the standards of the U.S. market."
The "95” means the mask is supposed to block 95% of the particles in the air. Miller says N95s, the U.S. standard, go through more rigorous and continuous testing than KN95s, which are the Chinese version. But some of those KN95s come with more comfortable ear loops.
"It's not that KN95s are all bad, by any means, but it's hard to tell the difference," Miller said. "What you see might not be what you get."
Judging by the prices at Project N95, Miller says you don't need to pay more than about $1 apiece for quality N95 or KN95 masks.
You can also make your mask last longer by using a simple brown lunch bag to decontaminate it. At the end of the day, drop your mask in a bag, close it up and let it sit. After three to five days, experts say any virus on the mask will die and it will be safe to use again. You can re-wear a mask decontaminated like this up to five times.
"N95 or KN95 masks are more effective because they don't have the problem of openings at the side, but they're really hard to wear for a long period of time," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women's hospital.
Kuritzkes says for most people who need to wear a mask all day a good alternative might simply be to double up on surgical masks.
"I think the typical person is better with a double surgical mask than trying to go around with an N95 mask all day long," he said.
If you're concerned about the authenticity of the N95 masks you bought, the CDC maintains an online database of approved products, where you can check by manufacturer and product code.
Project N95's website features a store of verified N95 and KN95 masks.
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