During the pandemic, we’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with masks. As of fall 2022, it seems that people can be – once again – mask-free in many situations.

However, masks can still be a good idea for some people, and they still may be required in some situations. Here’s what you need to know about masking and staying prepared for the future.

What are the current masking guidelines?

The current masking guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the combined use of COVID-19 vaccines, booster shots and situational masking to prevent severe COVID-19.

Whether you should wear a mask depends on your chance of getting severe COVID-19 and how fast COVID-19 is spreading in your community. Of course, it’s fine if you want to continue wearing a mask, even if you don’t necessarily need one.

Here’s what to consider when deciding if you should still mask up:

Your chance of severe COVID-19

If you’re at high risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19, wearing a mask will help keep you safe. It can also be a good idea to talk to your doctor about monoclonal antibodies and other treatments that can reduce your chance of severe COVID-19. You may be at greater risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19 if:

  • You haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • You aren’t fully vaccinated or haven’t gotten your booster shot.
  • You’re moderately to severely immunocompromised.
  • You have a chronic health condition like obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure or lung disease.
  • You’re middle aged or older.

COVID-19 transmission within your community

If there is still a high level of COVID-19 spread in your community, it’s a good idea to wear a mask. While much of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa are at low to medium risk, there are still areas where the risk of transmission remains high. So, it’s important to check COVID-19 transmission rates for your county before deciding if you should mask up. Here’s what the CDC recommends based on transmission rates:

  • Areas with low transmission. You probably don’t need to wear a mask, but you may continue to do so if it makes you feel more comfortable.
  • Areas with medium transmission. If you have a higher chance of getting severe COVID-19, wear a mask in indoor public spaces. And if you live with or are visiting someone who has a higher chance of getting sick, wearing a mask and taking a COVID-19 test before you see them can help keep them safe.
  • Areas with high transmission. Everyone, including those who’ve been vaccinated, should wear a mask when in a public indoor space. If you’re at higher risk of severe illness, you should consider wearing a N95, KN95 or KF94 mask for better protection.

When required by locations or situations

Masks may still be required or requested in some situations and locations – for example, when traveling during COVID-19. So, it’s a good idea to look for masking guidelines before heading out of the house and to keep a clean mask with you in case you need it.

Your personal comfort level

It’s totally fine to keep wearing a mask if it makes you feel more comfortable – even if you live where there’s low community transmission and you don’t have health risks for severe COVID-19. This can also be a good idea because even if you get vaccinated, breakthrough cases of COVID-19 are still possible.

Why should vaccinated people consider wearing masks in high transmission areas?

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots when eligible is still the best thing you can do to reduce your chance of getting a serious case of COVID-19 or spreading it to others.

But masking, along with the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots, further reduces your chances of getting a serious case of COVID-19. And if you’re less likely to get a serious case of COVID-19, you’re also much less likely to have serious long-haul COVID-19 symptoms that can last for months.

How to wear a face mask properly

Handling your mask safely helps make it even more effective at limiting the spread of germs. Follow these steps to put on your mask the right way:

  1. Wash your hands before putting on your mask.
  2. Place your mask over your mouth and nose, and secure it under your chin. Masks that don’t cover both your mouth and nose aren’t effective.
  3. Try to fit your mask snugly against the sides of your face.
  4. Make sure you can breathe easily.
  5. Avoid touching your mask, except by the straps.

What is the best mask to wear for COVID-19?

There are a variety of masking choices, including cloth masks, surgical masks, KN95 masks, KF94 masks and N95 respirators.

Should I wear a N95 respirator, a KN95 mask or KF94 mask?

Earlier in the pandemic it was important to reserve N95 masks for front-line workers. Now that they are more widely available, should everyone wear them? Not necessarily.

If you live in a part of the country with a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, finely woven cloth masks and disposable surgical masks offer good protection against the spread of COVID-19. However, masks work best if everyone else is masking up as well.

So if you’re wondering if you should switch to N95, KN95 or KF94, consider where you’re going and who you’ll be around. Are other people wearing masks? Will you be around people who may be unvaccinated or have COVID-19?

What are the differences between N95, KN95 and KF94 masks?

The biggest differences between these masks are in the following areas:

  • Mask design – Differences in design can make some masks more comfortable than others. N95 masks fit tightly over your nose and mouth which some people find uncomfortable for all-day wear. KN95 masks have a tent-like shape that allow a pocket of air between the mask and your nose, which can make it easier to breathe. KF94 masks have an adjustable nose wire and side flaps that give them a tight fit that’s still comfortable.
  • The amount of filtering – All of these masks filter out a high level of the aerosol particulates that can spread COVID-19. N95 and KN95 filter 95% of particulates, and KF94 masks filter 94% of particulates.
  • Approval by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – Only N95 masks have NIOSH approval.

If you decide to wear a N95, KN95 or KF94, watch out for fakes. The CDC estimates that about 60% of available respirators are fake and they’ve provided tips to identify approved respirators. Also, try to avoid use of N95 respirators labeled for surgical or medical use – these masks should be prioritized for health care workers, so they have the right protection to safely do their jobs.

How long can you wear a N95, KN95 or KF94 mask?

You may be able to reuse a N95, KN95 or KF94 mask a few times, as long as you take care of your mask between uses. But it really depends on where you’re wearing the mask and for how long.

If you’re wearing one of these masks for a few hours a day, you might be able to wear the same mask for a week or so. But if you live in an area with high community transmission and spend 8 hours or more around people who might have COVID-19, it’s probably safer to toss your mask at the end of the day.

Top three features of the best COVID-19 face masks

No matter what type of mask you choose, here are some key things to look for:

#1 – A mask that fits well

  • Look for a mask with a nose wire.
  • After putting it on, there should be no gaps on the sides of the face or around the nose that would allow air to escape.
  • If the mask doesn’t fit well, consider using a mask fitter or a brace. For example, you may not get a tight seal if you have a lot of facial hair.

#2 – A mask that is thick enough

  • Disposable surgical masks should be 3-ply.
  • Cloth masks offer the least amount of protection against COVID-19, according to the CDC. If used, cloth masks should be made of at least two layers of finely woven fabric and be thick enough to block the light.
  • Some types of masks can be layered for added protection. A recommended option is wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask. However, don’t try combining two disposable masks or wearing a N95 with any additional mask.
  • The CDC has developed a short video showing how to knot and tuck masks to improve fit.

#3 – A mask that’s clean and dry

We provide more details about how to care for your masks below, but here are the highlights:

  • Surgical masks should be thrown away after use.
  • Cloth masks should be cleaned daily.
  • N95, KN95 and KF94 masks can be reused in some situations.

What kind of mask should I NOT wear?

You should avoid wearing:

  • Any mask with a vent or valve – These kinds of masks allow breath particles to escape, so they may be more likely to spread the virus.
  • Masks made from materials that make it hard to breathe – Vinyl is a common mask material that can inhibit your breathing. Choose cotton or polyester instead.
  • Cloth masks that are too thin.

How do I take care of my masks?

Keep your masks in tip-top shape by handling, storing and cleaning them properly.

How do I reuse a N95, KN95 or KF94 mask?

If you’re planning on reusing your mask, you’ll want to be more careful about how you take it off and store it. When you’re done wearing it, use clean hands to pull it off by the ear straps so you don’t touch the front. Then store the mask separately so it can’t touch your other items – perhaps in its own paper bag.

When it’s time to use the mask again, pick it up with clean hands and make sure it doesn’t have rips or tears before putting it on again. You’ll also want to be sure that the mask still fits well.

And, of course, any time you touch a mask that’s been used – whether you’re taking it off or putting it on – you should wash your hands to make sure you remove any germs that may have been on the outside of the mask.

How should I clean cloth masks?

  • Machine washing – Cloth masks can be washed along with your regular laundry and detergent. Use the warmest possible water setting. It’s okay to run them through the dryer afterward, too.
  • Hand washing – Clean your cloth masks by mixing 5 tablespoons of disinfectant bleach with 1 gallon of water. Soak the mask for 5 minutes. Then, let it air dry, preferably in direct sunlight

What are some tips to make wearing a mask easier?

Sometimes it’s hard to know where your day will take you, so keeping a small stash of masks in your car, purse, backpack and office makes it easy to grab one and go – no matter what’s on your schedule.

Wearing a mask doesn’t have to be a drag. KN95 and KF94 masks come in a variety of colors so you’re not limited to plain white face coverings. You could wear a mask that shows off your favorite sport or animal, or choose a mask that matches your outfit. Look at masks as a way to express yourself!

Wearing a mask is uncomfortable for me. Does that mean I shouldn’t wear one?

Masks aren’t one size fits all – literally.

If you find your mask is uncomfortable, always slipping or too tight against your skin, don’t give up. Most likely, you have a mask that’s too big, too small or not made from the right material. As a result, it’s not feeling right to you.

Effective masks come in many shapes and sizes, and they’re made from many kinds of materials. Look around for another mask to find one that feels better. Eventually, you’ll discover one that’s just right.

How do I stick with mask wearing and overcome “mask fatigue”?

Sometimes it can be hard to see the point of safety precautions – especially since the pandemic has been going on for quite some time. This is a normal and natural thought called “caution fatigue” or “mask fatigue.”

Here are some tips to help overcome mask fatigue:

  • Focus on your breathing – Taking longer, slower breaths while you’re wearing a mask can help you feel calmer and more comfortable.
  • Take breathing breaks – In a safe space (ideally outside), remove your mask and take a few deep breaths with your diaphragm or belly.
  • Stay hydrated – Your nose is designed to take in moisture, but sometimes this can become difficult when you’re wearing a mask. To stay energized, make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Relax – Take a few moments to loosen up your body (and your mind). We recommend shoulder shrugs, arm circles, side-to-side bending … any simple motion that doesn’t cause pain.

Here’s to seeing smiling faces again

It’s a relief to see the low COVID-19 transmission rates across much of our community. Just like you, we hope that the worst is behind us.

But we also know that it’ll take more than hope to keep us safe. Thankfully, the COVID-19 vaccines, boosters, and other treatments continue to provide strong protection against new variants and help reduce the chance of severe illness. Plus, scientists continue to work on new medicines and treatments to help even more.

However, it’s also important to keep an open mind about what’s needed in the future. Health experts may recommend another booster shot, that we wear masks in different situations or something else. By working together, we can continue to make strides in keeping COVID-19 under control.