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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to be tested for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By David Shepardson and Lisa Baertlein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) late on Friday revised its guidance for Americans on wearing masks, recommending wearing “the most protective mask you can,” although the agency stopped short of calling for nationwide N95 usage.

The CDC clarified in its revised website “that people can choose respirators such as N95s and KN95s, including removing concerns related to supply shortages for N95s.” It added that Americans should “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”

The CDC said it wanted to encourage Americans to wear masks rather than push them to wear the highest grade face protection. “Masking is a critical public health tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask,” the CDC said.

The health agency added that “while all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection.” It said the revised recommendations “reflect the science on masking, including what we have learned in the past two years.”

COVID-19 cases have surged and more Americans have been opting for higher-grade protection. Overall, the United States is tallying nearly 800,000 new infections a day and record levels of hospitalized patients with COVID-19.

The Omicron surge appears to be slowing in areas that were hit first, including Northeastern and Southern states, according to a Reuters analysis. In Western states, by contrast, the number of new cases has climbed 89% in the past week compared with the previous week.

Some U.S. N95 makers told Reuters they had record N95 sales after top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci recommended on CNN that Americans “get the highest quality mask that you can tolerate and that’s available to you.”

N95 masks that are worn correctly will filter out at least 95% of particulate matter in the air, preventing anything larger than 0.3 micron from passing through.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, on Monday will require some employers to provide “medical-grade” masks – surgical masks, KF94, KN95s or N95s – to workers at high risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection on the job.

Masks remain polarizing in the United States. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, this week again urged citizens to wear masks and noted that about one-third of Americans report they do not wear a mask at all. Many Republican-leaning states have no mask requirements while some liberal Democratic-controlled states like California have reimposed indoor mask mandates.

Senator Bernie Sanders reintroduced a bill dubbed the Masks for All Act on Wednesday which would send each person in the United States a pack of three N95 masks.

In December, the Biden administration announced it would extend a mandate on wearing masks on airplanes, trains and public transit and in airports and other transit hubs through March 18. The CDC on Friday N95 masks may be considered for use in places like transit “when greater protection is needed or desired.”

In May, the CDC had announced that fully vaccinated people could shed their face coverings as COVID-19 was on the decline. But in July, the CDC said fully vaccinated Americans should wear masks in indoor public places in regions where the coronavirus was spreading rapidly. The CDC says currently 99.5% of U.S. counties are covered by the mask recommendation.

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