After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their mask guidance to say that people “may choose” to wear N95 and KN95 masks for more protection against COVID-19, Dr. Michael Osterhelm spoke passionately about the need to wear the higher-quality face coverings.
Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infections Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, appeared on Weekend TODAY to discuss the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and current omicron surge. He said he was "glad" to see the CDC issue the new guidance, even though he thought the agency could have suggested it earlier.
“It’s far too late. We knew a year ago that they should be wearing N95s as a routine and that there were plenty of them in this country so I welcome the new news but it surely is late in coming,” he said.
"Second of all, the recommendations are what I would best call tepid. They mean you can wear them. I don’t think that’s right," he continued. "I think you must wear them. This virus is highly infectious and cloth face coverings and even surgical masks are just not adequate at keeping it out. My message is you can do a lot to protect yourself by wearing a tight face-fitting N95."
Initially, masks were not at all recommended for use against COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, guidance changed to encourage the use of cloth face masks, because there were concerns that the encouragement of high-quality face masks could create shortages that would impact healthcare workers.
Osterholm said that that's not currently a concern.
"You will not be taking them from other healthcare workers," Osterholm said. We have plenty right now. This is an important step at protecting yourself, in addition to being vaccinated."
With omicron spreading faster than the delta variant, Osterholm predicted that the world would experience a "viral blizzard" of omicron five weeks ago. While the country is still seeing more than a million cases a day, he said there is some hope for the end of the surge.
"When I first suggested this was going to be a viral blizzard it was about five weeks ago, and I said that it would be up through eight to nine weeks that this would happen and we’re right on target for that," Osterholm said.
In the face of the current surge and low pediatric vaccine rates, Osterholm said that the best thing parents can do to keep their children safe and in school during this time is get them vaccinated as soon as possible. Right now, just 17% of eligible children between the ages of 5 and 11 have been vaccinated, compared to more than 70% of adults.
"I think it's a real concern," he said. "What it really signals is we are having a terrible time turning vaccines into vaccinations ... We're seeing major increases in cases presenting to hospitals in young kids, so we need to keep emphasizing the importance of getting these vaccines. ... Please, get your kids vaccinated."