COVID-19 Roundup: Latest on N95 Mask Guidance, Availability; Genetic Factor Linked to Loss of Smell and/or Taste; and More

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January 21, 2022


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Without Choosing One Type Over Another, CDC Now Says N95, KN95 Masks are Preferable

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance on masks for the general public, now stating that people “can choose” to wear N95 and KN95 masks because they offer the best protection against the Omicron variant, which is much more transmissible than any previous strain of COVID-19.

Additionally, the CDC now says that there are no “concerns related to supply shortages for N95s.” The CDC clarifies that the N95 for public use are of the non-surgical variety. “Surgical N95s” are a specific type of respirator that should be reserved for healthcare settings, the CDC says.

Federal officials announced Wednesday that 400 million free non-surgical N95 face masks will be shipped to distribution sites nationwide beginning this week, as part of the government’s campaign to fight surging Omicron cases. You’ll be able to pick up masks at one of “tens of thousands” of retail pharmacies, thousands of community centers and other locations nationwide as early as late next week, the White House stated. (Additionally, the federal government is shipping free, at-home COVID-19 test kits to each household. Go to covidtests.gov to sign up.)

In its updated guidance, the CDC stopped short of saying that people should choose certain masks over other types, stating that the “CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”

The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., told reporters recently.

Generally, masks are made to contain droplets and particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out. If they fit closely to the face, they can also provide you some protection from airborne particles, including those carrying COVID-19, that are spread by others. Respirators, N95s and KN95s, offer ideal protection because they “are made to protect you by filtering the air and fitting closely on the face to filter out particles,” the CDC explains.

The CDC: “Whatever product you choose, it should provide a good fit (i.e., fitting closely on the face without any gaps along the edges or around the nose) and be comfortable enough when worn properly (covering your nose and mouth) so that you can keep it on when you need to.”

Learn more on CDC’s Types of Masks and Respirators page.


Study: Genetics Linked to Higher Risk of Losing Sense of Taste, Smell from COVID

Researchers say they have identified a genetic factor linked to a higher risk of losing the sense of smell and/or taste after a COVID-19 infection, according to a study published in the journal Nature Genetics.

The study’s authors say the cause is associated with the locus, or a particular place of a gene on a chromosome, located near two olfactory genes linked to COVID-related loss of taste and smell. These diminished senses are common early symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, with one study claiming that up to 1.6 million people in the U.S. have lost their sense of smell for six months or more after contracting COVID-19. 

Researchers wrote that they “identified a genome-wide significant locus in the vicinity of the UGT2A1 and UGT2A2 genes. Both genes are expressed in the olfactory epithelium (found within the nasal cavity) and play a role in metabolizing odorants (substances that give off a smell).”

The precise cause of sensory loss due to COVID-19 is still largely a mystery. But scientists believe damage to infected cells in a part of the nose, or the olfactory epithelium, could contribute significantly to the loss of smell. These cells protect olfactory neurons, which help humans smell.

For the study, researchers collected data from the genetic testing company, 23andMe, of nearly 70,000 adults who self-reported testing positive for the virus.

Though the study’s findings provide an important insight into COVID-19-induced smell and taste loss, researchers cited that the research has limitations. They say it is not clear if the genetic link relates more to loss of smell or loss of taste, or both equally.  

The authors wrote: “Given that loss of smell or taste were combined in a single survey question, we cannot further disentangle these two symptoms. Loss of smell without loss of taste may be distinct from loss of both, or loss of taste without loss of smell. Given this, it is unclear if our findings relate more strongly to one symptom or the other.”


U.S. Study: Compared to Delta, Omicron Variant Causes Fewer Hospitalizations or Severe Illness from COVID-19

Newly released research on more than 69,000 COVID-19 patients in California found that the Omicron variant — despite being much more transmissible than the previously dominant Delta strain — causes less severe illness and fewer or shorter hospitalizations, compared to other variants including Delta.

The preliminary study “noted substantially reduced risk of severe clinical outcomes in patients who are infected with the Omicron variant compared with Delta,” said Rochelle Walensky, M.D., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which funded the research.

Compared to those with Delta, patients with Omicron were 53 percent less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, 74 percent less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit, and 91 percent less likely to die of COVID.

Those patients diagnosed with Omicron who were hospitalized were discharged sooner, compared to those with Delta, the study also found. “Median duration of hospital stay was 3.4 (2 days shorter for hospitalized cases with Omicron variant infections,” the study states. That represents a 69.6 percent reduction in duration of hospitalizations.

The study reviewed 69,279 symptomatic patients who tested positive for COVID-19 from Nov. 30 to Jan. 1. About 75 percent of the positive samples contained the Omicron variant, and the remainder were Delta. Researchers analyzed electronic records maintained by Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, a large healthcare system which serves nearly 5 million people.

The U.K. and other countries have recently reported similar findings — that the Omicron variant carries a lower risk of hospitalization.

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