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The CDC is preparing to update its COVID-19 mask recommendations to emphasize the use of N95 and KN95 masks that better filter the virus, Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said Wednesday.
“We are preparing an update to the info on our mask website to best reflect the options that are available to people and the different levels of protection different masks provide, and we want to provide Americans the best and most updated information to choose what mask is going to be right for them,” she said at a White House news briefing.
While the higher-quality masks provide better protection, they can be uncomfortable to wear, expensive, and harder to find. That’s why Walensky added an important caveat.
“Any mask is better than no mask, and we do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19. That recommendation is not going to change,” she said.
“Most importantly, the best mask that you wear is the one you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long and tolerate in public indoor settings.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization was more focused on vaccines.
WHO officials stressed Wednesday that global vaccine distribution is first priority in defeating the highly contagious Omicron variant, as well as other variants that may evolve.
The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition — a group of experts assessing how COVID-19 vaccines perform against Omicron and other emerging variants — says there is an “urgent need” for broader access to vaccines, along with reviewing and updating current vaccines as needed to ensure protection.
The WHO also disputed the idea that COVID-19 could become endemic in one largely vaccinated nation, while the rest of the world remains unprotected.
“It is up to us how this pandemic unfolds,” Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19 response, said at a news briefing.
The WHO has a goal of vaccinating 70% of the population of every country by the middle of the year.
But right now, 90 countries have yet to reach 40% vaccination rates, and 36 of those countries have less than 10% of their populations vaccinated, according to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD.
A staggering 85% of the African population has not received a first dose.
But progress is being made, Ghebreyesus said at the briefing.
The WHO said there were over 15 million COVID-19 cases reported last week — the most ever in a single week — and this is likely an underestimate.
The Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa 2 months ago and now found on all seven continents, is “rapidly replacing Delta in almost all countries,” Ghebreyesus said.
Back at the White House in Washington, Walensky said this week’s U.S. daily average COVID-19 case count was 751,000, an increase of 47% from last week. The average daily hospital admissions this week is 19,800, an increase of 33%. Deaths are up 40%, reaching 1,600 per day.
But she also reported new data that supports other research showing Omicron may produce less severe disease. Kaiser Permanente Southern California released a study Tuesday showing that when compared with Delta infections, Omicron was associated with a 53% reduction in hospitalizations, a 74% reduction in intensive care unit admissions, and a 91% lower risk of death.
In the study, no patients with Omicron required mechanical ventilation. The strain now accounts for 98% of cases nationwide.
But Walensky warned the lower disease severity is not enough to make up for the sheer number of cases that continue to overwhelm hospital systems.
“While we are seeing early evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta and that those infected are less likely to require hospitalization, it’s important to note that Omicron continues to be much more transmissible than Delta,” she said. “The sudden rise in cases due to Omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism, and strains on our health care system.”
Briefing, White House COVID-19 Response Team, Jan. 12, 2022.
Briefing, World Health Organization, Jan. 12, 2022.