INDIANAPOLIS — During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, public health experts said the N95 respirator was the best mask to wear to protect against the first outbreak of the coronavirus.

But those respirators were in short supply and cloth masks were the next best alternative.

Now with the omicron variant once against filling Indiana hospital beds with COVID-19 patients, experts suggest upgrading your mask choice.

“There are some cloth masks that are very well made and work very well but unfortunately they’re not regulated at all, so you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy a cloth mask,” said Dr. Paul Driscoll, Executive Medical Director of the Franciscan Physician Network. “N95 by definition is designed to filter out 95% of the particles in the air that a person is breathing.”

N95 masks have become more available on the market as have KN95 masks made in China.

“The KN95 which is very similar,” said Dr. Driscoll. “They have not been certified for use in the United States in health care settings but certainly would be a reasonable alternative for people to get if they can get ahold of them.”

Public health experts tell us even surgical masks are a better alternative to cloth masks.

“I think we’re still at the place where we know cloth masks provide some protection, but not as much as surgical masks and surgical masks provide quite a bit of good protect but not as well as the N95 mask,” said Dr. Brian Dixon of the Regenstrief Institute. 

At Sun King Brewery, Co-CEO Dave Colt said his staff has masks on hand for those customers who forget to bring their own.

“We would prefer people coming in wearing a mask, if they get up and move around to use the rest room or other parts of the facility that they wear a mask, but it is not required for us and we are requesting that at this time,” he said. “We haven’t had too many incidents where kind of like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ It’s a request and if you don’t feel that this is you, then, ‘you-do-you’ on that front.”

Dr. Driscoll said the advent of masks kept flu deaths down to eleven last year in the Franciscan system and he did not suffer a cold last winter because he was masked up.

“I think those mitigation strategies have shown us that we have a way to try to control the flu and colds,” said Dr. Driscoll who predicts many Hoosiers will continue to wear masks after the pandemic passes. “Unfortunately, when I’ve been at Kroger the last few weeks, maybe 20% of the people or less are wearing them.”