Will we be wearing masks forever? Here's what experts think

We’re now more than six months into the global pandemic, and it’s starting to feel like this bizarre version of normal might be here for a while. But, while many biopharmaceutical companies continue to work on making a safe and effective vaccine to protect against COVID-19, new comments from several prominent public health officials suggest that mask-wearing may be here to stay.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies that face masks may be more protective than a vaccine. “We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense,” he said. “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told Business Insider that “a combination of an effective vaccine and adherence to certain public health principles will get us to the point where we want to be, by the end of 2021.”

“I never said just the vaccine,” he continued. “You never should abandon the public health measures. And the intensity of the public health measures would depend on the level of infection in the community.” If there’s little to no spread of COVID-19 in any given community, then, Fauci says, “together with the vaccine, you might want to be able to say, ‘I can safely congregate with people.’ You may want to do it with a mask, or without a mask.”

Research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in June also found that regions in the world where people more commonly used face masks had milder COVID-19 epidemics. The authors specifically cited Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, among other countries, as having good mask usage and lower rates.

“These results suggest that early public interest with face mask may be an independently important factor in controlling the COVID-19 epidemic on a population scale,” the researchers wrote.

All this raises a huge question: Are face masks here to stay? Experts say they just might be.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that he’s thought about this “a lot” lately, and there are a few reasons why he thinks masks have staying power.

“Most of us think that a COVID-19 vaccine will be a good — but not perfect — vaccine,” he says. If a COVID-19 vaccine is 70 percent effective, which is more effective than the flu vaccine has been in recent years, “that means for every 10 people vaccinated, three will remain as susceptible as they were before they were vaccinated,” Schaffner says. “That means the only way they can be protected and the only way we can protect them is to keep wearing masks,” he adds.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “A COVID-19 vaccine is likely not going to provide sterilizing immunity the way the measles vaccine does,” he tells Yahoo Life. “We’re going to still need to take protective measures for some time period, potentially until a second-generation vaccine is developed.”

Getting the population fully vaccinated once a vaccine is developed will also take some time and, with that, mask-wearing may become more ingrained in our culture, Adalja says.

Even once a vaccine is widely disseminated, it’s expected that some people won’t get it — and that could allow the virus to continue to spread. “The only logical thing is we will have to continue wearing masks and social distancing for quite some time,” Schaffner says.

Data has also shown that wearing masks could help affect the spread of other respiratory viruses, such as the flu. “In the Southern Hemisphere, there were very low flu rates this season — their winter — which have been partially attributed to the lockdowns and other measures,” Dr. David Cennimo, assistant professor of medicine-pediatrics infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “So, why wouldn’t we keep using masks, at least in the winter?”

Cennimo says masks may be a good option in the future for high-risk settings and settings with close contact “even after COVID-19 has died down.” Masks could also help prevent the spread of the common cold, rhinoviruses and the flu “just the same” as COVID-19, since they’re transmitted similarly, he says.

Schaffner says that masks may eventually become more common in the U.S., similarly to how they’re used in Eastern countries. “Perhaps we are moving more toward what’s happened for years in countries in the East where, during cold and flu season, many people wear masks to protect themselves and others,” he says. “Masks may simply become part of life.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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