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What's the best face mask for protection in public or work amid COVID, omicron surge

Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage from the Louisville Metro Department of Health said omicron is a more transmissible variant, so it's best to wear a higher-quality mask.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville health officials have recommended wearing surgical masks, N95 or KN95 masks as omicron cases continue to spread. 

Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage from the Louisville Metro Department of Health said any mask is better than no mask, but right now, she recommends at least a surgical mask. 

On Wednesday, the CDC's Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted that the CDC's official guidance wouldn't change.

Walensky wrote the CDC "continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask, and we encourage Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves." 

Hartlage said during the omicron surge, surgical masks or N95 and KN95 type masks can provide better protection because they have a better seal and filtration when worn properly. 

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Hartlage said those types of masks are routinely used in healthcare settings when dealing with respiratory illness. 

"It's not a new thing to be using them to provide that high-level filtration, but it's maybe a newer thing to be disseminating them out into the world," she said.

Hartlage said all masks offer a different level of protection

Cloth masks were acceptable when community spread was low, but the omicron variant's transmissibility warrants a higher quality mask. 

RELATED: Louisville hospitals face record-breaking admissions, blame rise in COVID-19 cases

In recent months, local pharmacies have seen shortages of the at-home rapid tests, as more people try to get tested, but masks appear to be readily available - at least for now.

Local hardware stores tell WHAS11 News they do still have N95 masks in stock, though that wasn't always the case. 

“A year and a half, two years ago, when it first started, they were very hard to get and recently in the last 6 or 8 months or so I would say we started to get them back in," Paul Fussenegger from Oscar's Hardware in Germantown said of their own stock. 

Fussenegger said lately, more and more people have been purchasing the masks. 

“A lot more people are looking for them," he said. "I’m getting a lot of phone calls about them and everybody is buying five or six at a time versus when they were just buying one or two.”

Hartlage acknowledged cost can be a barrier for higher quality masks.

"Varieties are available for people outside of the healthcare sector, but it can be difficult to find them and they are generally more expensive," she said. 

At one local hardware store, WHAS11 News purchased a KN95 mask for about $5. At Oscar's, they're around $4 a piece. 

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Hartlage said the good news is that the KN95s can be reused several times, unlike surgical masks. 

"They're not infinite, but you can use them for several days or perhaps a week or more, if you're not wearing them all day," she said. Hartlage said if a mask is soiled or wet, it's time to throw it out. 

She also recommends her "swiss cheese" protection strategy, meaning taking multiple steps including masking, vaccination and staying out of high-risk places in order to stay safe. 

“None of them are perfect and so we do the best we can at each level, so if something slides through one level hopefully the next level will catch it," she said.

RELATED VIDEOYes, surgical masks offer better protection against COVID-19 than cloth masks

Contact reporter Grace McKenna at gmckenna@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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