Masking guidelines updated as COVID cases surge

MISSOULA - Recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate the Omicron COVID-19 variant is three times more contagious than the Delta variant and masks with better filtration will provide better protection. Infectious disease experts recommend citizens should use a N95 or KN95 if they have the option to with Omicron on the rise. Missoula County Health Officer D’Shane Barnett concurs adding the public should use all the tools to stop the spread including masking, social distancing, avoiding large groups and unnecessary travel and limiting social circles will help reduce the transmission rate and keep everyone healthier.

During a press conference Jan. 6, Barnett explained that the Omicron variant has a much higher transmission rate than the Delta variant which had a much higher transmission rate than previous variants.

Barnett said they were expecting a spike from the Omicron variant in mid- to late-January, they were surprised when it arrived in Missoula in late November. The surge in testing hit the week between Christmas and New Year. While the Delta surge took seven weeks to go from an incidence rate of 10 to 60. In the current spike, Missoula County made the same change in 15 days.

“What we are seeing is this spike is absolutely increasing much quicker than the previous spike that we just went through,” Barnett said.

Barnett said the state reports on the type of mutation for the positive COVID cases. Last week 14% of the COVID cases were of the omicron variant and the rest were Delta. However, because the reporting lags by a week, he is unsure how much that has increased.

Barnett said the change in the recommended type of mask is due to the high transmissibility of the omicron variant.

“Within each droplet or aerosol particle, there is a much higher concentration of the virus,” Barnett said. “Because of that we want to prevent droplets and aerosol transmission between people as much as we can.”

Barnett shared the efficacy of different masks as reported by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists last spring. When in the presence of someone who is positive for COVID-19, cloth masks provide protection for about 20 minutes, surgical masks provide 30 minutes of protection and the N95 or KN95 provides about two and half hours of protection. These results are based on the number of droplets and aerosol particles that get through.

“Because omicron is so transmissive, we want to do everything we can to reduce the number of droplets and aerosol particles that are being exchanged between individuals in our community,” Barnett said. “One of the best ways we can do that is have folks wearing these N95 masks.”

Barnett emphasized that there is not currently a shortage of N95 masks for health care and purchasing them now will not take away from the health care professionals.

“While that was the case two years ago, that is not where we find ourselves today,” Barnett said. “Where we find ourselves today is we want as many people as possible wearing N95 masks.”

Health officials say if individuals cannot purchase or find N95 or KN95 style masks, they should wear a triple layer cloth mask or surgical mask along with a cloth mask. Masks should also have a snug fit on the individual’s face to prevent leakage of droplets.

Barnett emphasized that due to 2021 legislation, Missoula County cannot mandate masks. The Missoula City-County Health Department’s best tool is education. Then they rely on individuals to “do the right thing.”

“It is really up to us to practice those behaviors to keep everyone safe,” Barnett said.

Barnett said in other areas where the Omicron variant hit before Missoula, it has not caused the hospitalization and extreme sickness in vaccinated individuals. However since the 5-12 year old age group has not had access to the vaccination as long and that age group in Missoula County is only at a 20% vaccination rate, they are expecting to see an increase in serious illness and hospitalization within children.

“They are the most at risk as Omicron makes it way through Missoula County,” Barnett said.

Barnett was asked if boosters are recommended for people that have tested positive and recovered during the current spike. He said if someone has tested positive within 30-90 days, they do not recommend a second shot or a booster. If people have received their first two shots, they recommend getting the booster.

“We have seen through the course of this virus, through the last spike and we expect to see through this spike, the vaccines absolutely do add a level of protection even in individuals that do end up contracting the virus,” Barnett said.

The Health Department issued new isolation and quarantine guidelines, based primarily on vaccination status. The charts are available at

Barnett added the COVID testing through the Health Department are for individuals experiencing symptoms or those that are confirmed close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. To get a COVID test prior to travel or if someone thinks they have been exposed, Barnett recommends fo

llowing the links available on under the Resources tab. There are also posters available on the website for businesses to print to encourage customers to wear a mask.

As well as reducing the spread, Barnett said they want protect health care workers. There are currently a significant number of hospital staff out with COVID which limits their capacity to deal with any injury or illness.

“In this community we want to be done with COVID but COVID is not done with us,” Barnett said. “The best thing we can do right now is practice all of those healthy and responsible behaviors that contribute to slowing the spread of the virus, keep our friends, family and neighbors out of the hospital and work together to get past this.”

The Missoula City-County Health Department moderated a question and answer ZOOM call with Missoula doctors regarding Omicron, vaccinations and general COVID-19 questions. To listen to the 40 minute recording visit


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