Union College prohibits cloth masks amid omicron wave


SCHENECTADY — Union College has banned the use of cloth face coverings on campus, requiring students and faculty to wear only medical-grade masks amid a surging virus and growing calls for the country to adopt stronger masking guidelines.

The policy has been in effect since the start of the winter semester, which was held remotely for the first week due to COVID concerns. A letter reminding students of the new policy was sent out to students this past week, when students returned to campus.

“Given that the omicron variant of COVID-19 is highly contagious, adherence to mask-wearing rules is essential to safeguard the health of our community,” the letter reads.

Under the new policy, disposable surgical masks or other medical-grade masks, including N95, KN95 and KF94 masks are now required. A cloth mask can only be worn if paired with a surgical mask.

Philip Wajda, a spokesman of the college, said the policy was adopted after a growing body of research found cloth masks are not as effective in slowing the spread of the omicron variant, a highly-contagious strain of the virus that has sent caseloads and hospitalizations skyrocketing.

“Cloth masks have been shown to not be effective in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant and should not be worn unless over a disposable surgical-style mask,” he said in an email.

He added that the college is also advising students to limit the amount of time their masks are pulled down while eating and drinking and that masks are not required while students are in residence halls or while employees are alone in their office.

Colleges and other organizations have implemented similar policies as a way to curtail the spread of the virus, including the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona.

On Wednesday, the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center announced anyone who enters the facility or one of its community clinics must wear a “medical procedure mask.”

“The change in guidance excludes the use of cloth masks including gators, neckerchiefs, vented masks, and others that have not been found as effective in mitigating the spread of disease,” a statement from the Medical Center reads. “This is especially important as newer variants emerge, which are proving to be more contagious.  Vaccination, appropriate masking practices, hand hygiene, and social distancing continue to be the best mitigation control factors against the spread of COVID-19.”

The change in policy comes as a growing number of health officials have called for people to abandon cloth face coverings in favor of medical-grade masks as a way to slow the surging virus, and as the Biden Administration weighs sending free N95 masks to residents across the country.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that the CDC is weighing a change to its mask guidelines that would recommend Americans wear a KN95 or N95 masks if they can tolerate doing do.

The masks, the newspaper reported, are far more effect at filtering particles than cloth coverings but are less comfortable and more expensive, which is why the CDC has yet to adopt a policy requiring the masks to be worn.

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested people “get the highest-quality mask that you can tolerate and that’s available to you” during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Cloth masks have been shown to stop large droplets and were encouraged in the early days of the pandemic due to a limited supply of N95 masks, which were then reserved for medical personnel.

Under current CDC guidance, masks that fit snugly and have at least two layers of breathable fabric and a metal nose bridge are recommended for anyone 2 or older while in public indoor settings. N95 masks are recommended to be reserved for medical personnel.

But on Tuesday, Fauci said the N95 and KN95 masks are now widely available, adding that while the CDC guidelines in place are more effective than not wearing any mask, people should seek out the best mask possible to protect themselves and others.

“What the CDC has said — and it gets misinterpreted — they’re saying, wearing any mask is better than no mask at all,” Fauci told CNN. “But there is a gradation of capability of preventing you from getting infected and from you transmitting it to someone else. So we should be wearing the best possible masks that we can get. That’s a fact.”

Meanwhile, colleges throughout the region have been updating policies as they prepare to welcome students back to campus.

The University at Albany delayed the start of the spring semester on Tuesday, pushing classes back a full week until Jan. 24.

Students there are required to submit proof of vaccination, including a booster, if eligible. Those currently not eligible to receive a booster — which is recommended five months after the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and two months for those who receive the Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot — must get boosted within seven days of becoming eligible.

SUNY Schenectady County Community College, meanwhile, is still finalizing reopening plans. Classes are scheduled to begin next week.

Meanwhile, the State University of New York requires all students to wear a mask across its 64 campuses, which include UAlbany and SUNY Schenectady. Medical-grade masks are not required but are recommended, according to Jackie Orchard, a spokeswoman for the public university system.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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