Face masks or coverings are part of a new normal in the COVID-19 era — at least for now — as Kentuckians wear them for work, grocery runs, shopping, hospital visits and other everyday activities.

Wearing a mask is among recommended state guidelines, along with maintaining social distance, washing hands frequently, and staying home when sick.

But, why is it recommended and how effective is it?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets, which can happen through common actions like talking, coughing and sneezing. It states droplets can travel around six feet and land on people or could possibly be inhaled.

The agency continues to study the virus’ spread and its effects across the U.S. It knows from recent studies that a “significant portion of individuals” with the virus lack symptoms, or they’re asymptomatic, according to CDC.gov.

People who develop COVID-19 symptoms can also transmit the virus to others before showing any symptoms, or when they’re “pre-symptomatic.”

“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain ... especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” CDC.gov states.

“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining six-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus.”

Types of masks

Sherry Rhodes, a registered nurse and nurse administrator for Pennyrile District Health Department, explained that masks are important to help reduce spread of COVID-19 even if people don’t have symptoms. Wearing cloth masks in public is recommended.

The department oversees clinics in Caldwell, Crittenden, Livingston, Lyon and Trigg counties.

Cloth face masks or coverings are an effort to contain respiratory droplets from the person wearing them, which may have germs. However, people should still practice social distancing and hand washing as preventative measures.

“It’s not a substitute for social distancing and it’s not going to protect everything, but it’s just going to be another protection, added protection,” Rhodes said.

The CDC recommends cloth coverings for the general public, as N-95 respirator masks and surgical masks are supplies needed by health care workers and other medical first responders. In particular, N-95 masks should also be fit-tested and may not be as effective without that.

It says cloth face coverings aren’t intended to protect the person wearing them, but may prevent spread from the wearer to others. N-95 masks help filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, while surgical masks offer protection against large droplets and splashes, but are not considered respiratory protection, according to the CDC.

Proper use

CDC guidelines for cloth face coverings say children younger than 2 and people who have trouble breathing, or are “unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask” without help, shouldn’t wear them.

Rhodes also said not to use masks for children under 2 and to make sure people wear them properly, noting that she’s seen people wearing masks under their nose.

“You want to make sure it fits snugly against your face,” she said. “If it ties or has the ear loops, you want to make sure that it’s covering your nose and mouth.”

People need to avoid touching their masks or coverings too.

“When you take it off, you want to take it off from the sides or the loops, that way you’re not touching the front of it,” she said. “ … Now, the cloth ones that people are making can be washed and they do need to be laundered.

“And if they’re wearing like a surgical mask, they can wear those over, more than once. You don’t have to wear it just once and throw it away, but if it got really dirty or had holes or something, then they would need to throw it away and get a new one.”

Kent Koster, director for the Purchase District Health Department, recently shared there’s “all kinds of cloth masks” and some don’t have as much of a gap from the face, which will be more effective than ones that don’t fit as closely.

The department covers McCracken, Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties.

“I’ve seen them in different designs, so I guess if you were to choose a cloth mask, it would be better to choose a style that reduced the amount of air that could escape or enter through gaps around the face,” Koster said.

He addressed situations where people may not be able to wear them, explaining that people know when they put a mask on if it’s inhibiting them from being able to get enough oxygen.

“You know your own body and you know if you’re not able to breathe properly with a mask, then either you need to get a different type of mask that would allow you to breathe better, or not wear a mask and not be out in public as much to reduce your risk,” he said.

“Each individual would have to make that decision on their own, as to whether or not they need to wear a mask or not based upon their own physical situation.”