COVID-19: New Zealand mask experts debate which are the most effective against Omicron

A debate's brewing among mask experts over the best protection against Omicron.

It comes after the Director-General of Health suggested on the weekend that N95s were less effective than some other masks if not fitted properly.

Everyone's rushing to find the right masks to wear.

"Even just this afternoon even more people coming through by the hour," pharmacist Christey Blythen says.

Wellness Works pharmacy still has stock of the elusive N95s, but they're being rationed.

"We're just making sure there's enough for everyone at the moment," Blythen says.

New Zealand can't make them fast enough to meet demand, says the founder of an Auckland air filter supplier.

"We're actually flat out at the moment. Our capacity's at its limit and our stocks are depleted," LANACO founder Nick Davenport says.

That's despite Dr Bloomfield saying this on Sunday: "If they're not fitted properly then they can be less effective than a cloth or indeed a surgical mask."

However, mask experts disagree with Dr Bloomfield.

"It's just not accurate," says Dr Lucy Telfar-Barnard, research fellow in the department of public health at University of Otago, Wellington.

"I think we're getting the information from different places."

Today Dr Bloomfield backed the place he gets his information.

"Well the evidence is from the studies that are done on these," he said.

If you can't get a respirator that's an N95, go with a pack of disposables.

"The protection provided by the fabric in a surgical mask is good - the challenge with the surgicals is getting a really good fit and I can get a pretty good fit by tying the sides and tucking the pleats,"  Dr Telfar-Barnard says.

The aim of the game is a snug fit and filtration. Top of Dr Telfar-Barnard's mask hierarchy is N95s or P2s, even if they're not properly fitted, but try to get as good a seal as you can.

"On the evidence, on the quality of the filter and the likely fit the P2s and the respirators are the best option if you can get them," she says.

These can be used up to five times but put them in a paper bag for four days to dry out before using again.

Next best are surgical masks, but make it secure with no gaps. These can be washed and reused up to 10 times.

And sadly it's time to ditch the cloth numbers - they're no match for Omicron's tiny particles.

If you've got some cute ones you're desperate to keep using, put them over top of a disposable.

But adding a box of disposables to the weekly can be a stretch for some families.

"There is a role for government to make sure that people can access those high-quality masks particularly for communities who are more likely to be vulnerable when the infection comes," Dr Telfar-Barnard says.

"I think we both need to be looking at the scientific evidence and the practicalities of making them work in our communities," Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verral says.

Making masks work thanks to Omicron is a new goal for all of us.