Which face masks and techniques for wearing them offer the best protection against spreading COVID-19? With more people wearing masks again as infections surge, LkldNow asked local public health officials about best practices.
Dr. Daniel Haight, Lakeland Regional Health’s community health VP and infection prevention director, has recommendations for those who want to make sure their mask provides basic protection. If you have cloth masks that contain multiple layers of tightly woven fabric, he suggests following these steps:
“Hold the mask to the light. They should block most of the bright light and have nose wire,” he said. “We want it [to work] both ways, masks protecting you and others, but the virus starts leaving you before you start feeling sick.
“We know that these type of group germs affect the respiratory tract, and the virus comes out, not free floating but stuck moisture – snot – or little droplets and the virus is attached to those,” Haight says.
For those who are infected and may not know it, the droplets get stuck in the mask and that reduces exposure to others, he says.
Whether your mask is cloth or disposable, it is important to make sure it covers the mouth and nose, he says. In addition, it should have a nose wire, which needs to be carefully adjusted to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask, he says.
Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend wearing a mask indoors where there is substantial risk or threat of COVID.
Haight warns against accepting mask misconceptions spread by online misinformation.
“People research on their own but find the information inaccurately describes what’s noted about masks and repeat unreliable information,” he says. “For example, that holes in the mask are larger than the virus so … the virus passes through. But the virus is stuck to those droplets and gets caught. The majority [of masks] help and are better than nothing.”
“For vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals, the guideline is wear a mask in areas of high transmission and wear in public spaces,” says Pamela Acosta-Torres, public information officer for the Florida Department of Health office in Polk County. “We are a high transmission area.”
Acosta-Torres says the Health Department recommendations cover the same points as Haight’s. She has additional clarification for most mask wearers in pubic settings.
“When choosing, make sure the cloth or disposable mask has two or more layers, to have more protection,” she says. “If you use two masks, wear a disposable one underneath and the cloth on top,” she says.
Haight says he hopes children will wear masks this year. The Polk public schools district, like most in Florida, makes masks optional. School Board Vice Chair Kay Fields recently proposed that Polk join a handful of mostly urban school districts in enacting a temporary mask mandate, but her motion wasn’t voted on when School Board Chair Lori Cunningham ended a meeting Tuesday without asking if there was a second to Fields’ motion.
Earlier this month, the CDC updated its guidance on masking in schools, recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
So if we wear a KN95 or N95 mask, are we safer?
The N95 and KN95 masks, also called respirators, both filter 95% of the particles in the air but, as Haight points out, can be more uncomfortable and costly. These are frequently the masks used by healthcare workers to protect themselves and others.
The N95 and KN95, or medical respirators, are more protective than the surgical masks with a single elastic band (i.e. dust mask), ear loops or string ties, he says.
Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Florida Department of Health’s Polk County office, recently spoke with Lakeland city commissioners about the surge in infections driven by the delta variant and said, “I’m back to wearing a KN95 because I want added protection.”
What’s the difference between N95 and KN95 masks?
Haight offers this explanation: “N95 and KN95 respirators (masks) are very similar. The N95 follows the United States quality and functional standards while the KN95 follows the very similar Chinese standards. Both filter out 95% of small particles. The N95 is slightly easier to breathe through and some people with large faces find more options with the N95. But be careful since some masks are labeled ‘KN95’ and may not have the word ‘respirator’ but rather ‘facemask’ and those may not be high quality.”
Haight also said, “You sometimes see people wearing the masks with the plastic valve on the front that looks square or circular. People like these masks because it is easier to breathe out and it may not fog your glasses.” But he added, “We’re seeing fewer and fewer because these masks do not help protect others. When someone breathes out of it, germs go out without going through the filtering material of the mask. But to help block germs, we would ask people in the hospital to wear another mask on top of the valve mask and that often defeats the purpose of increased comfort.”
After taking off your mask, Haight says, you should always wash your hands, adding, “If the mask has become moist or damaged, then it’s time to clean it and/or change to a new one.”
What about masks with printed logos or designs? Some designs made of rubbery material don’t allow air to flow through, but a small logo should be fine, he says. It should be “not so large and impervious that it blocks air.”
If you’re considering a purchase of a clear plastic face shield, Haight says that unless someone is going to be exposed to splash or splatter events, a shield is unhelpful.