In the latest guidance from President Jeffrey Armstrong, Cal Poly is now strongly recommending the campus community wear surgical or fitted N95/KN95 respirator masks indoors. This recommendation comes days after a record number of Cal Poly students tested positive for COVID-19 and as the highly contagious Omicron variant surges across the United States. 

In an email sent out Thursday afternoon, Armstrong cited the latest masking guidance from the California Department of Public Health, which states that N95, KN95 and fitted surgical masks are among the most effective while cloth masks remain the least effective when it comes to protection from the Omicron variant. 

The California Faculty Association San Luis Obispo chapter has been asking Cal Poly to provide KN95 or N95 masks. The union’s chapter president, Lewis Call, said in a Jan. 5 press release that Cal Poly was deciding not to require or provide these masks “despite their enhanced effectiveness at preventing the spread of COVID-19.”  

While face masks only block the wearer’s particles from being exhaled into the air, N95s also protect the wearer from inhaling those particles.

Two days before Armstrong’s email recommending N95s and KN95s, University Spokesperson Matt Lazier told Mustang News that Cal Poly’s experts were “not aware of clear data indicating that (other) masks do not work as well with Omicron.”

The on and off campus experts advising Cal Poly are namely Dr. Trees Ritter, pathologist Dr. Kevin Ferguson and Cal Poly food science and nutrition professor Aydin Nazmi who specializes in nutritional epidemiology. This is in addition to guidance from county and state public health departments.

Lazier said the university’s decision not to provide nor require N95 and KN95 masks for widespread use was due to the need for formal fit tests when using N95s and a potential burden on the supply that could make these masks inaccessible to healthcare workers.

The university also said most coronavirus transmission comes from comfortable settings between friends and family where masks are off. 

“I am pleased to say that our classrooms to date have remained safe with no known transmission of the virus, which is a result of everyone’s outstanding diligence and compliance with these protections,” Armstrong said in his email. “In addition to vaccines and boosters, wearing a surgical or properly fitting N95/KN95 mask provides an additional degree of protection as part of our multi-layered approach to mitigating risk.”

Cal Poly has been providing employees with N95s upon request since last quarter. Cal/OSHA required employers to provide them upon request to unvaccinated employees because of their increased risk. Cal Poly opted to provide N95s to employees upon request regardless of vaccination status after several departments requested N95s for fall quarter, Lazier said.

Only surgical masks will remain available to students in buildings across campus as well as two new central distribution centers located at the University Union and Kennedy Library.

“We continue to respond to requests for N95s to help people feel safe to come to work; however, it would not be practical to have everybody on campus wearing N95s,” Lazier said in his email to Mustang News.

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