KN95s are the solution to the mask debate

Mask-wearing can be a personal choice with the help of higher-grade masks

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Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Julia Oktay, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

On Feb. 15, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the mask mandate for vaccinated people in Massachusetts, including students in K-12 public schools. Member schools of the University of Massachusetts system are divided on the topic. Both UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth plan to lift their mask mandates, effective Feb. 28, while UMass Amherst does not.

A Feb. 17 email from UMass Amherst’s Public Health Promotion Center read, “We are monitoring the changing guidance on mask wearing and will integrate that into our assessment of our specific campus and local community situations. Based on current conditions, our indoor mask requirement remains in effect.”

Institutional administration is not alone in their fickleness. On Reddit, students are divided too. Unsure of their opinion, user xenokingdom writes, “I do worry for the food service workers who seem to skew increasingly older and are lacking in a proper union. Still, though, I think I’d be fine with easing it.” Speaking to the anti-mask side of the argument, user DivisionQuicks writes, “If you actually think the mask mandate should be in place considering our vaccination rate you’re unhinged.”

Given how divisive this issue is, doesn’t it make sense to err on the side of caution and keep the mask mandate? I’d argue, not so much.

My argument for dropping the face mask requirement is that higher-grade medical masks such as N95s and KN95s are more widely available now than ever before — and at UMass, they’re free to anyone who stops by the Campus Center. Higher-grade masks have the potential to bridge the gap between those who want to unmask, and those who don’t.

According to the Mayo Clinic, wearing a N95 or KN95 mask “offers more protection than a medical [surgical] mask does because it filters out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales.” That is, surgical masks can limit outward particle emission when the wearer exhales but are not intended to protect the wearer from inhaling infected particles. Higher-grade masks accomplish both of these tasks, and they do it better. N95 and KN95s have up to 95 percent filtration efficiency when it comes to protecting wearers against viral aerosols and droplets.

Back in 2020, many state governments used the mantra “my mask protects you, and your mask protects me.” The slogan refers to the fact that the cloth and surgical masks we were using at the time were most effective in filtering out viral particles when the wearer exhaled, rather than when the wearer inhaled. That is to say, the wearer is unlikely to spread virus to others, but can easily catch it.

That’s not the case if the wearer is using a KN95 or N95 mask. If using a higher-grade mask, the mask can effectively limit particle transmission in both directions. According to Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who focuses on airborne transmission of diseases, “The combination of vaccination with [a] booster and an N95 provides excellent protection.”

Given the high efficacy rate of these higher-grade masks and the UMass community’s high vaccination rate, the combination of the two can be used as a compromise in the debate between easing mask guidelines and keeping them as they are. N95 and KN95 masks provide enough protection that those who want to unmask can do so, without infecting their masked peers. Making masks optional at the University and continuing to provide N95s and KN95s for those who choose to mask up can satisfy both sides of the argument.

Mask-wearing must come to an end one day. And if not now, then when? What will it take for UMass to drop its mask requirement?

Substituting KN95s for lower-grade mask mandates was not an option six months or even a year ago, as vaccination rates were lower and KN95s were not widely available. But now that it is, we must give students the right to choose whether they want to wear a mask. I want my agency back.

Julia Oktay can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @juliadoktay.