#PandemicLife has been going for what feels like forever (real time: six months), and the whole thing is starting to feel endless. With restrictions on just about every aspect of life and the constant need to wear face masks in public, it’s only natural to wonder when the novel coronavirus pandemic will end. Or, at the very least, when you can stop wearing face masks everywhere.
Sure, you already know that face masks are one of several crucial ways you can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). With more than 200,000 deaths in the U.S. and seven million confirmed cases (and counting!), per Johns Hopkins, strapping on a mask is a pretty small sacrifice to make for the greater good of all. Especially the elderly or immunocompromised among us. But no one is denying that face masks can be uncomfortable, hot, and annoying at times.
So . . . when can you be done with them? Here's what you need to know about when you might be able to stop wearing a face mask for good:
There's no hard end date when you can stop wearing a face mask.
To be honest, there's not even a clear timeline in place. “It’s very difficult to say, considering the number of cases in the world are still increasing,” says Rajeev Fernando, MD, an infectious-disease expert in Southampton, N.Y. “We just have to watch and wait.”
Fernando anticipates that mask wearing will continue “at least through the winter season, but possibly longer.”
Given how common face masks are now, experts expect that they’ll continue to be used even in a post-pandemic world—when we eventually get there.
“There are thousands of respiratory viruses out there, and masks can help protect against them,” Fernando says. “Eventually, it will become good practice to always wear face masks out in public, especially during the winter.”
The face mask timeline also depends on whether there's a COVID-19 vaccine.
A good vaccine for COVID-19 needs to be developed before we can stop wearing face masks, says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious-disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
Even then, he says, people will need to wait until “the vaccine is widely available and experts think herd immunity has been reached.” (Herd immunity, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a situation where a sufficient enough portion of the population is immune to an infectious disease, through infection or vaccination, to make person-to-person spread unlikely.)
It’s unclear at this point exactly what percentage of the population would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity, Fernando says.
But Watkins doesn’t expect mask mandates to loosen up much before then. “It is likely to be all or none,” he says.
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