There’s no doubt some masks can help reduce the spread of viral particles, but the highly transmissible Omicron variant has made some of the lower quality masks less effective.
So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week stressed that better masks - like the N-95 - are a safer bet for those at risk.
One South Florida company, DemeTECH in Miami Lakes, has been trying to get that message out for years now.
The CDC's new emphasis on N-95 masks has been well received in the scientific community, but also at DemeTECH - a private, family business that’s been making them since soon after the pandemic began.
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"When the pandemic started, we couldn’t manufacture enough masks," DemeTECH vice president Luis Arguello Jr. "We were 24/7 providing masks straight from the product line to distributors to hospitals to government."
But, mixed messaging about masks and government’s failure to commit to American manufacturers took its toll.
"It went from a crazy up to a crazy down and the stop of purchasing masks," he recalled, adding, "Unfortunately we had to furlough and lay off a sizable amount of employees."
But this week, the DemeTECH factory floor was humming with hundreds of workers per shift as machines produces as many masks as they can handle - the goal being one million a day.
This time they hope the CDC masking message sticks.
"Unfortunately there has not been a clear signal from our scientific community regarding masks," Arguello said. "First it was wear masks, don’t wear masks, wear cloth masks and finally now they’ve come out and said high quality masks do matter."
DemeTECH is making and offering for sale on its website not just N-95 masks, but also surgical masks and some N-95-type products specially designed to fit children or be more comfortable for them and adults.
"It's been a race to the top, race to the bottom and now all the factors are back (as they) race to make as much as we can," said Arguello.
The new mask guidance comes as there are encouraging signs the Omicron wave of the pandemic is nearing its peak in Florida.
Day-to-day caseloads and hospitalizations have ticked down. But experts say hold the champagne.
"We’re not out of the woods yet with the Omicron surge," said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, a Florida International University epidemiologist who focusses on weekly trends. "It's looking like the rate of increase has slowed a little bit but we are still increasing basically in all the parameters in Florida."
That could change quickly, though.
Omicron is different - less likely to cause severe illness among the vaccinated and boosted - and elsewhere signs are promising.
"The South Africans peaked very sharply," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House COVID adviser. "They went up and in a few weeks they came right back down."
But the doctors stress not to let your guard down and, where appropriate, keep your masks up.
"The scientific data since the beginning has been clear: masks help," said DemeTECH's Arguello, whose family medical supply company has been making products for nearly 30 years.
"I wish we had more of a clearer message from the CDC in taking charge of this virus, in terms of vaccine, testing, masks and how to really take charge on what we have to do as a country," he said.
Across the factory floor from the mask manufacturing, DemeTECH is already packaging a rapid antigen test sold under the On/Go brand . He said they're producing nearly one million of those day.
As for masking, Trepka said the CDC’s new advice on stronger masking is not an admission that other masks did not work at other times with other variants.
"The Omicron variant is much more transmissible than the Delta variant, so it's not so much that masks have changed, but rather that the virus has changed," she said.
With so many getting exposed — often with no or minor symptoms -- some immunity could be spreading through the population, she said. "That’s a possibility and that would be wonderful if it turns out you could get a lasting immunity through a mild Omicron infection and not get long COVID symptoms."
But, ever the scientist, Trepka said we need to wait for the data.
"Hopefully this will be the last major surge we have to deal with," she said, "but it’s dangerous to try to predict what will happen."
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