When Can We Stop Wearing Masks?
Vaccines are promising, but don’t toss that face covering just yet
From a scientific perspective, there’s no longer any question that face masks help prevent the spread of Covid-19, protecting both the wearer and others. So with optimism rising over vaccines that appear to be highly effective, one big question now is how long we’ll all be bound to cover our faces, especially since new cases and deaths continue to soar.
The answer: Longer than you might have hoped.
Key factors include how quickly a sizable majority of the population gets vaccinated, plus a big wild card: whether the vaccines actually prevent infection, either mostly or entirely, or merely prevent and curb symptoms while leaving an infected person still potentially infectious.
In the meantime, infectious-disease experts stress the ongoing importance of masks in a layered approach to prevention that still includes avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing hands frequently, then getting the vaccine when your turn comes.
“Even after being immunized it will be important for people to continue to wear masks until we hear that the pandemic is under control, many people have been immunized, and community levels of disease are at acceptably low levels,” says David Aronoff, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “While vaccines will prevent symptomatic infection, we do not know whether vaccines will completely prevent infection in the first place, or prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Vaccines are never perfect
For comparison, the annual flu shot — more important than ever this year — is typically around 50% effective. It fully protects some individuals, and if a vaccinated person does catch the flu, their symptoms are likely to be less severe and of shorter duration than a nonimmunized person, and during that time they could still transmit the disease to someone else, Aronoff explains.
“I am hopeful that SARS-CoV-2 vaccines prevent infection and eliminate contagiousness,” he tells me. “But we need to behave as if they reduce symptoms, prevent severe disease, shorten the duration of viral…