Now that over 35% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, public health officials say it’s time to start looking toward the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic—and rethinking when face masks are needed.
In a major update to its masking guidance—its most wide-ranging since first recommending the use of face coverings last year—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated people can go maskless in most uncrowded public places. Unvaccinated people, meanwhile, must continue wearing masks in most outdoor and all public indoor settings.
Certain states, like Texas, Florida, New Hampshire, and Iowa, have already repealed their mask mandates or allowed them to expire. But to bring masking to an end in the safest way possible, the vast majority of Americans will have to receive the COVID-19 vaccine first, according to the nation’s leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D.
So, 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 can we safely stop wearing face masks?
Fully vaccinated people—those who have passed two weeks since their final vaccination—can now go maskless in virtually all outdoor and indoor settings, including at indoor get-togethers, inside restaurants, during high-intensity exercise classes, and at full-capacity worship gatherings. Masks are still required on planes, buses, trains, and public transportation, plus in crowded places like hospitals and homeless shelters.
It’s not a free-for-all: 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 and in all indoor settings outside of your home if you are not vaccinated.
Not wearing a mask when necessary is “a very bad idea, especially with the spreading variants,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. It’s “hard to say” when we fully can stop, given that the end of regular face mask wearing is tied to the end of the pandemic.
But, he adds, “if and when we achieve herd immunity, routine mask wearing can likely be discontinued.” (Herd immunity means a majority of a population is immune to an infectious disease, providing indirect protection to those who are not immune to the disease, such as newborns or vulnerable people who cannot get vaccinated due to health risks.)
Dr. Fauci told CNN in February it’s “possible” public health officials will continue to recommend masks in 2022. However, he said, life should look more normal by then, adding, “we’re going to have a significant degree of normality beyond the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year.”
It’s likely that some type of mask guidance will 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.”
In a way, these updates will be even more incentive to line up for your dose; you’ll be safer and you’ll be able to enjoy some sense of normalcy in many situations that have been interrupted since last March. To this point, President Joe Biden has set a goal of vaccinating 70% of U.S. adults by July 4.
To be clear, fully vaccinated people can and should still wear masks in public if they want to. It’s unclear whether vaccinated people can transmit COVID-19 to others who have yet to receive the vaccine, although experts believe the risk is greatly reduced. In very rare cases, fully vaccinated people can still become infected with SARS-CoV-2, as the vaccines are not 100% effective.
As for actual mask mandates, “this will be done on the state-by-state basis,” Dr. Adalja 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 this year—data from the CDC found that there have been under 2,000 clinically diagnosed cases of the flu since September. That’s a huge drop-off compared to last year’s flu season, which saw an estimated 56 million cases.
Because of this, experts say masks may have staying power—at least during cold and flu season. “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, 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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