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How Much Longer Will We Be Wearing Face Masks? Here’s What Experts Predict

Prevention logo Prevention 8/18/2021 Korin Miller, Jake Smith

Fully vaccinated Americans have been free to go without face masks in most places for just over two months. But with the highly transmissible Delta variant on the rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has once again updated its masking guidance, recommending that fully vaccinated people “should wear a mask indoors in public” in areas of“substantial or high transmission.”

What’s different now? When the CDC first announced that fully vaccinated people could go without masks, Delta represented just 1% of COVID-19 infections, CNN reports; now, it causes the vast majority of cases, which continue to rise. Even before the latest guidance, indoor masking has been making a return; counties in California, Nevada, and Massachusetts have all advised residents to resume wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status.

a close up of a person wearing a costume: As more Americans get the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s still important to wear a face mask in public. Here’s why, plus when we might be able to stop wearing them. © HUIZENG HU - Getty Images As more Americans get the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s still important to wear a face mask in public. Here’s why, plus when we might be able to stop wearing them.

“If you want to go the extra mile of safety, even though you’re vaccinated, when you’re indoors, particularly in crowded places, you might want to consider wearing a mask,” Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told CNBC in July. “This virus is clearly different than the viruses and the variants that we’ve had experience with before. It has an extraordinary capability of transmitting from person to person.”

As Delta’s impact only grows—and the CDC doubles down on the importance of masking—it’s natural to wonder: When will we realistically stop wearing face masks? And will they become the new normal during cold and flu season? Here’s what infectious disease experts know so far.

When should you wear a face mask and why is it still important?

Fully vaccinated people—those who have passed two weeks since their final vaccine dose—should wear masks in public indoor settings in areas with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, the CDC advises. In virtually all outdoor settings, unless they are very crowded, going maskless should be fine. Masks are still required on planes, buses, trains, and public transportation, plus in crowded places like hospitals and homeless shelters.

Unvaccinated or half-vaccinated people can skip masks only when they’re exercising outdoors or spending time with small groups of vaccinated people. The CDC still recommends wearing a mask in any crowded outdoor situations, during close contact with unvaccinated people, and in all indoor settings outside of your home if you are not fully vaccinated.

That’s because the United States is still facing a “perfect storm” of COVID-19, says Joseph Khabbaza, M.D., a critical care specialist and pulmonary care expert at Cleveland Clinic. Delta is highly contagious and is spreading rapidly, public health restrictions like masking and social distancing had evaporated in many parts of the country for an extended period of time, and vaccine hesitancy is still rampant.

It appears that fully vaccinated people with rare breakthrough infections—meaning they’ve contracted the coronavirus, with or without symptoms, 14 days after they’ve been fully vaccinated—can in fact spread SARS-CoV-2, but experts believe the risk is greatly reduced. Although the vaccines are not 100% effective, over 97% of people being hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, showing that the vaccines are, in fact, doing their job in preventing serious illness.

Masking has been confirmed to protect both the wearer and the people around them, and it’s an ideal tool for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in high-risk situations, Dr. Khabbaza says. “Respiratory viruses and infections are spread by droplets leaving an infected person’s nose or mouth and entering a recipient’s nose, mouth, or eyes,” he explains. “Just having that physical barrier over your nose and mouth makes it harder for droplets to go in either direction.”

It’s simply a piece of what Dr. Khabbaza calls the “Swiss cheese” method of COVID-19 protection: Separately, wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, and getting vaccinated won’t offer 100% protection from the disease. But by stacking those Swiss cheese slices on top of each other, there’s less and less chance that COVID-19 will be able to infect you, and thus spread to others.

When can we safely stop wearing face masks?

It’s “hard to say” when we can fully stop, given that the end of regular face mask wearing is tied to the end of the pandemic, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Some type of mask guidance will likely be in place until there is a “sufficient decrease in community spread of the virus,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That may be late 2021, as more people get access to the vaccine.” As for an end to the actual mask mandates, “this will be done on the state-by-state basis,” he says.

Will face masks be recommended after the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s possible, especially since masks are proven to fend off infection. Flu season practically didn’t exist in 2021—data from the CDC found that there have been just over 2,100 clinically diagnosed cases of the flu since last September. That’s a remarkable drop-off compared to the 2019-2020 flu season, which saw an estimated 56 million cases.

Because of this, experts say masks may have staying power—at least during the colder months. “Masks were common in Asia pre-COVID, so I expect more people in the U.S. will be comfortable wearing them after the pandemic,” Dr. Watkins says.

Dr. Adalja points out that it’s always been recommended that people wear a mask if they have a respiratory virus, even before the pandemic. “That won’t change, but more people will be likely to adhere to it,” he says.

And some people may continue to wear masks in public, like crowded areas and on public transit, Dr. Adalja notes, even after the pandemic simply because they’ve seen masks can work to help prevent illness.

This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.

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